It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 29

Since the year is almost out
Lift your hands and give a shout
There’s a lot to shout about today
Since it’s Christmas, let’s be glad
Even if the year’s been bad
There are presents to be had

From “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad,” by Sufjan Stevens

Before Blackwater and Arrival: Tuesday and Wednesday

The day before we left for our rented cabin in Blackwater Falls State Park was busy. I had time-sensitive work for both Sara and Mike, after working on back burner projects for Sara for weeks and not having had any substantial work from Mike since spring. I was a little stressed about that—and I’d woken with a bad headache that day to boot—but it turned out neither project was that time-consuming and the headache dissipated, so by mid-afternoon I could turn my attention to wrapping presents, attending the parents’ portion of a telemedicine psychology appointment for North, and making a black bean enchilada casserole for dinner. In the evening, everyone packed for the trip.

Packing the car the next morning was a mighty endeavor. We needed room for presents, boxes of tree ornaments, and more food than we usually bring because we were hoping to minimize grocery shopping while in West Virginia. It only worked because North didn’t need the wheelchair or the walker, just crutches and the shower chair, and because we didn’t buy our tree in Maryland and transport it on the top of the car as we usually do. We were even able to bring most of the presents from Beth’s mom, which we’d originally intended to open at home. The past four Christmases we’ve spent at Blackwater with YaYa, but this year it would be just the four of us, thanks to covid. We were all very sad we couldn’t be together.

Much to our surprise, because we usually open presents from anyone we’re not going to see over the holiday before we leave town, North strenuously objected to opening YaYa’s presents early. In their mind, the tradition was we open YaYa’s presents on Christmas (as in recent years, we’ve always been with her). They felt so strongly about it, we accommodated them and found a tree farm in West Virginia that could set aside a tree for us (they weren’t open on Christmas Eve day).

We hit the road around 11:15 and arrived at the park at 3:45, with a stop to pick up a to-go lunch order from Sheetz, which we ate in the car in the parking lot. There was a sandwich (mine) missing from our order so I had to go back inside and just as they were starting to fix me a new one, the person who’d taken it by mistake came back in with it and since all he’d done with it was open the paper, I took it from him. I was thinking how given two store employees and two customers were involved in trying to untangle the mix-up, there was potential for someone to get rude or snippy but no one did. Not quite a Christmas miracle, but worth noting and appreciating.

Around an hour and a half into the drive, we started seeing patchy snow, and then it came and went as we rose and fell in altitude, until, about three hours in, snow covered all the ground we could see. At the park there was about a foot on the ground.

We settled into the cabin and immediately started to discuss whether or not we’d stayed in this one before. There are two styles of cabin and I don’t know about the rustic ones, but the modern ones are identical, so it’s really impossible to know.  They are set off from the road along semicircular driveways in clumps of four or five, and as North pointed out, we’re always in one of the inner cabins, never an end one. In case we ever have this discussion again, I am stating for the record that in 2020, we stayed in cabin #29.

Beth and Noah watched an episode of The Mandolorian and then she made chili and cornbread for dinner, while Noah and I read a chapter of The Shining. I’m happy to be reading it with him because it’s one of my very favorite books and a good one to read while in the snowy woods, though I wasn’t anticipating a similar outcome.

That night we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol, as we’d made enough progress through the required Christmas viewing list that we could afford an optional one. Whenever we do watch it I’m struck by how surprisingly faithful it is. I like hearing Dickens’ prose woven through it.

Christmas Eve

Thursday was warmer and it rained intermittently throughout the day. Almost all the snow melted off the back deck and the ground behind the cabin was a soupy, muddy mess, though in front it held up better. Beth and Noah were gone most of the morning, fetching the Christmas tree from the farm (and meeting the friendly farm cats) and grocery shopping. They went to three different stores in search of eggnog, because Noah loves it so, and eventually found some.

North and I took a short walk along the park road and then into the woods by the road to peek into the canyon. We couldn’t see the river, but we could hear it. I told North not to stand on the boulders that are right on the lip of the cliff as I didn’t want to watch them seize and then topple into the abyss and they indulged me.

Along the side of the road, there were places were water was running in smooth canals of ice, with straight edges that looked as if they’d been constructed, though I’m pretty sure it was a natural phenomenon. In other places, there were ragged potholes in the snow through which you could see the current that was mostly buried, rushing along and making the long grass wave under the water. When North wanted to return to the cabin, I accompanied them and then took a longer walk down to the Pendleton Point observation area. I could see the lodge across the canyon, one of the many waterfalls in the park, and the river. 

After lunch, while we waited for the branches of the Christmas tree to fall, the kids and I made gingerbread cookies with the last third of the dough I’d made at home, and decorated them with hard candy, dried cranberries, and nuts. We made our initials into cookies and North made a Y for YaYa because we would have done that if she’d been here and we sent her a picture of it.

Beth wound the tree with lights and then we loaded it with ornaments. For a while it was in doubt whether they would all fit on the tree, but they did. North usually has the honor of putting the angel on top and this year was no different.

North made a vegetarian beef and mushroom stroganoff for dinner and afterward we watched The Nightmare Before Christmas and Face Timed with YaYa and Beth’s aunt Carole. The sisters live two doors apart from each other, so they’ve made a covid bubble. We’re all glad about that because they each live alone and it would have been a lonely year for them if they couldn’t spend time together. During the call, the rain changed over to snow and YaYa showed us it was snowing in Wheeling, too.

After the call, North went to bed and we sent Noah to his room so Beth and I could fill stockings. I remembered we’d forgotten to read “A Visit with St. Nicholas,” which Noah always reads aloud for us on Christmas Eve and I was wondering if there was any chance the kids would agree to do it on Christmas day, and thinking probably not—when a sleepy North wandered out of their bedroom headed for the bathroom, and I rounded everyone up and Noah gave us a spirited reading of the poem.

Everyone was back in their bedrooms for the night by ten-thirty, though I had to get out of bed when I remembered the cookies, milk, and carrot for Santa and the reindeer needed to be nibbled and drunk. Yes, we still do this. No, I’m not sure why. I guess because North wants us to and the kids go along with a lot of what I want. For example, they went to bed in coordinated pajamas that night, Noah in green and white stripes and North in red and white stripes.

Christmas

It was still snowing or snowing again when we woke. There was what looked like six inches of fresh snow on the deck. I think this was just about all Beth would have needed to have a merry Christmas, but there was more. Everyone was awake by eight, so we opened our stockings. Everyone had candy, both a handful of Hershey’s kisses and some individual kind of candy.

Beth and North made Christmas breakfast—a cranberry-lemon loaf, poached pears, and vegetarian sausage or bacon. I contributed by peeling a few pears. We ate and then opened presents. Books, socks, tea, and flannel pajama bottoms were popular gifts, with multiple people getting each. Among the other gifts, Beth got her subscription to The New Yorker renewed, I got some clothes (a belt, a white button down shirt, and black low tops), Noah got a new computer monitor (or, rather a note that said it was at home, because we didn’t want to transport it), and North got a bunch of things, including headscarves and a robe and a crocheting kit, but seemed most surprised by the pumpkin-praline-waffle scented candle we bought because YaYa always brings a candle with that scent at Christmas and North loves it.  After we opened presents, we Face-Timed with YaYa again to thank her for her gifts.

Noah and Beth watched a Star Wars movie—don’t ask me which one, I think it was one of the recent ones—while I did the breakfast dishes and then Beth and North made homemade pizza for lunch. The fact that Christmas was on a Friday this year had presented us with a conundrum because we always have pizza for dinner on Fridays but it didn’t seem quite right for Christmas dinner, so this was how we solved the dilemma. After lunch, North embarked on the final Christmas baking project—chocolate-peppermint cookies. They’ve made these before, but in the past have been disappointed that the tops didn’t crack the way they’re supposed to, so they were pleased to have achieved the crackled look this year. While they were making the cookies, I read a story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, one of my Christmas books.

In the mid-afternoon, Beth and I took a walk down to the overlook and Pendleton Lake. As we started down the park road she asked if I was having a merry Christmas and I said yes. I returned the question and she just threw her arms apart to indicate the snowy scene before us. It was all the answer she needed to give.

It was a cold day, about ten degrees when we left the house, but tramping through the snow was hard enough work that I didn’t feel that cold (except for my forehead). We went to the dam at the end of the lake because the water running out of the culvert often makes interesting ice formations. There wasn’t much ice there that day but it was still a very pretty and peaceful walk. We were out for over an hour and only saw two other people—two women with two very excitable dogs. When we got home, I discovered my scarf had frozen to my hair and I had a little trouble getting it off.

Beth and I made spinach lasagna and garlic bread for Christmas dinner. It’s what YaYa usually makes and in fact, she was having the same thing for dinner in Wheeling. After dinner, we settled in with bowls of cookies and eggnog ice cream to watch our last Christmas movie of the year, Christmas is Here Again. It was a sweet end to a merry Christmas.

Second Day of Christmas: Saturday

On Saturday morning Beth and Noah started a puzzle, as is their wont on vacation. It was a whimsical street scene of little shops selling different kind of treats. Beth got it by offering a trade for a puzzle she and Noah had already done on the neighborhood listserv.

In the afternoon, Beth, Noah, and I took another snowy walk, this one two and a half hours long. The day was a little warmer—sixteen degrees when I thought to check. We started on the cross-country ski trail that runs behind the cabins and followed it to the lake and then took a trail that had caught Beth’s eye the day before. The trailhead is near the dam and goes through the woods to Pase Point, a outcropping of rock from which you can look into the canyon.

The path was narrow and in places crossed through domes made where snow weighed down evergreen boughs. There were towering rhododendron bushes, their leaves snow-covered and curled against the cold. Some of them were twelve or fifteen feet high but where their branches were bent down with snow, we had to duck under them—once Noah crawled on his hands and knees. We saw some impressive icicles on the rock front and there were a few little wooden bridges that went over creeks and a couple little runs to ford by walking on rocks or just stomping through the inch-deep water. (This choice was dictated by how waterproof one’s boots were.)

It was overcast at first but as the sun started to come out we saw blue sky through the snowy branches and the snow on the path sparkled in front of us. We saw more people than the day before, more than a dozen hikers, skiers, and snow-shoers. A group of snow-shoers arrived shortly after we got to Pase Point, so we admired the beautiful view, but we didn’t linger.

I was tired when we got back so I took a little nap while Beth and Noah watched The Mandalorian. Noah made baked macaroni and cheese with broccoli for dinner.

More Days of Christmas: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday

We had two more days at the cabin. Sunday was warmer, above freezing all day. Beth and North took a little walk down the park road in the morning and Noah and I walked along the trail behind the cabin until it connected to the road and then took the road home in the early afternoon. Later in the afternoon, Beth, Noah, and I walked to the Pendleton Point overlook so Noah could fly his drone into the canyon. We’d been waiting for a mild day without much wind because those are the conditions the drone likes. But just after the drone took off, Noah got a message on the controller about something being wrong with the propellers so he brought it back. It had only just cleared the railing on the overlook when he turned it around. He made some adjustments and tried again, but got the same message, so we went back to the cabin, so he could trouble-shoot.

He ended up replacing one of the propellers (he has a spare parts kit) and then took it outside and flew it over the house. I watched it rise through the air from the kitchen window while chopping kale for Portuguese kale and potato soup. Noah thought it was good to go, but after walking back to the overlook he got the same message for a different propeller and by this point it was too late in the day to try again so we came home and I finished the soup and we ate it. After dinner we played Taboo, using first a website then an app because we’d forgotten to bring the game from home. The app works better if you’re curious. Then we split up to watch The Fosters (Beth and North) and What We Do in The Shadows (me and Noah).

Monday morning, Beth and Noah worked on the puzzle. It was almost finished but the part they had left was the trickiest one, the background of trees. While they worked on it, I ran the dishwasher and started the last three loads of laundry of the trip, and folded two of them, which is less work than it sounds like because the cabin’s washer is tiny.

When they’d finished the puzzle, Beth, Noah, and I went back to the overlook to try to fly the drone, which now had two new propellors, into the canyon for the third time. The wind was gusting as we walked down the road, so it seemed possible this would be another thwarted attempt, and it was. We arrived and waited for five or ten minutes for the wind to die down, but it didn’t so we went back to the house.

North was making their lunch, but once they were finished, we all got in the car to go to see the majestic Blackwater Falls. There are two trails you can take to do this. We were going on the short, accessible one so North could come along, and also because sometimes the wooden steps that get you closer to the falls are closed when they get coated with ice. But when we got to the accessible overlook, we could see people across the river on the lowest platform, so Beth, Noah, and I decided to brave that trail after lunch.

The steps were mostly covered with packed snow and ice, but they were open and we descended them carefully, not just resting a hand on the railing, but sometimes clutching with both hands and walking sideways. I didn’t mind looking like an old woman because I saw a few people fall, mostly teenagers or people in their twenties, who would laugh and spring back up. When we got to the viewing platform that’s about three-quarters of the way down, Beth and I decided to stay put and look at the falls from there, but Noah soldiered on, tempted, I think, by the opportunity to get some good pictures. I saw him fall once, but he got up and kept going.  We saw him get to the lowest platform and start to photograph the falls and the ice on the rocks. I pointed out to Beth how the snow on the other side of the river was light brown with the tannin-infused water that had splashed on it and said it looked like toasted marshmallows.  After Noah had left the lower platform but hadn’t appeared on ours, we looked around and found him on the trail above us, apparently waiting for us to turn around so he could take our picture. We walked back via a snow-covered but somewhat less slippery service road rather than taking the rest of the stairs up.

When we got back to the house, Noah and I read a few chapters of The Shining (we left off as Hallorann is racing back to the Overlook) and then Noah and Beth watched some more of The Mandalorian and then Beth and the kids took the decorations off the mantle and stripped the tree of its ornaments and dragged it to the deck while I read and finally finished this behemoth of a book, which I’ve been reading since September. I’d gotten seven books for Christmas so I wanted to finally finish it to clear the decks for them.

Dinner was leftovers and afterward we looked at Noah’s photos from the falls and watched the drone footage he’d shot from the porch. I didn’t realize he’d flown it as far away from the house as he had. You do get a glimpse of the canyon on the film. Next we turned to packing what we could because we were leaving the next day.

Tuesday we woke to flurries, but it didn’t amount to much and the roads were clear. We drove out of the snowy woods, through a mountainous landscape and eventually to exurbs and suburbs and home, where many of your Christmas cards and big box of presents from my sister, brother-in-law, and niece awaited us.

Go Beach: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 27

Saturday

When we passed the statue of Jesus with his arms raised at the intersection of Piney Branch and New Hampshire Avenues, I said softly to Beth, “Go beach.” We pass that statue just five or ten minutes in the trip to the beach and North always said that when they were little and we’d drive by it, even though most of the times we passed it we were not in fact headed for the beach but on some more mundane errand.

It had been stressful for Beth getting out of the house, figuring out how to fit everything we’d need for a week in the car around the wheelchair, walker, and shower chair. She wasn’t in the best mood, but she gave me a little smile anyway.

But as the kids disappeared into their headphones, she and I listened to a playlist of 60s hits from a podcast she listens to and by the time we got to the Taco Bell and Dairy Queen just past the Bay Bridge around 2:15, she seemed more cheerful. We got a late lunch from the drive-through windows and ate it at the picnic tables outside the DQ. This is our new pandemic beach drive tradition. I guess it’s a tradition, as we’ve done it twice now and as a family we form traditions easily. Noah and I got pumpkin pie-flavored confections because this was a Thanksgiving trip. (Though the kids both had classes through Tuesday and Beth and I were going to work, too, so it was going to be something of a busman’s holiday.)

We rolled into Rehoboth about 4:45, picked up the keys for the house in a box outside the realty, and drove to the house. It’s the same one where we stayed in July, so the wood-paneled walls and soaring ceiling in the dining room were a familiar and welcome sight. I knew just where the hook was to hang my mask when I walked in the front door.

After we’d unpacked, North and I walked down to the beach for a quick hello. I stood briefly with the toes of my rain boots in the foamy water, but stepped back so I wouldn’t end up with soaked feet, as they were ankle boots. It was cloudy but we could still see a lot of stars and something golden in the sky that might have been a planet.

Beth went out to pick up some groceries for breakfast and Grandpa Mac’s for dinner. I got the mac-n-cheese with broccoli, celery, and mushrooms mixed in; I never get anything else, though I vary the vegetables. We watched the middle third of The Castle of Cagliostro, an anime film we’d started the night before at home.

Sunday

The next morning we ate breakfast and menu planned for the week so Beth could go on the main grocery shopping trip of the week. She wanted to try out their curbside delivery system but after she’d filled out the form it said there were no pickup slots available, so that was disappointing. Before she left to go shopping, she went for a walk on the boardwalk.

North and I took also took a walk around the same time. It was a nice day, mild and sunny. North wore a sweater and I was wearing jeans and a wool shirt; neither of us needed a jacket. It’s a short walk from our house to the beach, only a block, but I was still encouraged they’d made it down there twice without any mobility device because they’ve had some setbacks with pain recently, which is why we had to bring the wheelchair and the walker. Beth’s making an appointment at the pain clinic soon. I have a feeling a new round of physical therapy may be in their future.

When North was ready to go back to the house, I walked them there and then turned back to the beach because I wanted a longer walk. I spent almost two hours rambling down the beach and boardwalk and then sitting on the sand with my back resting against the fence the divides the beach from the beach grass. It wasn’t too crowded and virtually everyone on the boardwalk was wearing a mask—it’s required there. On the beach, where it’s not, it was more like half and half.

I was particularly charmed by two little girls who winter hats on but were barefoot and barelegged up to the knees, wearing matching flowered capris. They were running up to the water, getting their feet wet, running back to the sand and jumping in a big puddle the tide left there. Their joy (and constant movement) reminded me of my own kids when they were small and on the beach and made me a bit nostalgic for those days.

I went back to the house to eat lunch and read three chapters of The Fated Sky and watch a couple episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale with Noah. By 4:15, I was ready to hit the beach again and North wanted to come, too. This time we took the walker and went further down the boardwalk. And again, when they wanted to go home, I walked them home and went right back. I was out until well after dark, sitting on a bench on a stretch of boardwalk where the dry grass was short enough to see over and watching the white tops of the waves shining in the glow the streetlights cast on the beach.

Beth made chili and cornbread for dinner, then we finally finished The Castle of Cagliostro. My favorite thing about it was the setting of the castle, which is very well realized. Then we watched a couple episodes of Blackish. We’re at the end of season 3, just about up to the part where Zoey goes to college.

And speaking of college, the day before we left for the beach, Noah had to decide whether to go back to Ithaca in the spring. Three of the four classes he registered for are meeting entirely online, the cafeterias are going to operate on a grab-and-go basis, and his best friend is not going to be on campus, so he decided to stay home. One thing that made the decision hard was the one in-person class was Cinema Production II, which can be hard to get into and which is important for his course of study. Still, it didn’t seem worth a semester of taking classes and eating meals mostly in his dorm room when he could be taking classes from his room at home, where the food’s better and he’d at least have his family to keep him company.

I’m really sad for him, not being on campus for a quarter of his first year of college and the whole second year. I just hope with two (or is it three now?) new vaccines on the horizon and the promise of real leadership at the federal level, he’ll be able to go back for his junior year next fall. He’s already decided if he goes abroad it will be in his senior year so he can have a whole, uninterrupted year on campus. And I hope he gets into CP II again, so he can get more use out of the film studios that drew him to Ithaca in the first place.

Birthday

Monday was Beth’s birthday and it was such a complicated day we needed to write down the schedule. Everyone had work or school, but in addition, North wanted to go out for bagels for breakfast, I had to pick up the birthday cake I’d ordered for Beth’s birthday from the bakery, we were going to get takeout Italian for lunch and have a picnic, plus go to Starbucks for Beth’s birthday reward. In the afternoon, we had a virtual teacher-parent conference with North’s new English teacher (the original one quit early in the school year and they had a medium-term sub until a long-term sub was hired). After that, we were going to do a Christmas card photo shoot on the beach. Finally, I was making breaded tofu sticks and applesauce for dinner, which Beth had requested for her birthday dinner, followed by cake and presents.

So the day went more or less like that, with some minor variations. North and I left the house for the bagel place at eight, shortly after I rolled out of bed, so they could be home by nine for their English class. But it turns out it’s only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the off season, so we came home without bagels. I can’t say I minded much as a morning walk on the boardwalk is never amiss and I was just as happy to eat cranberry granola at home.

I worked on a technical sales sheet for a blood pressure supplement on the screened porch in the morning and then Beth drove me to the bakery to get her cake—a chocolate cake with cookies-and-cream frosting and mini Oreos on top. I might have gone to get it in a sneakier fashion, but while we were still in Takoma the bakery returned my call and she’d picked up the phone, so there wasn’t much point in secrecy after that. Soon after Beth and Noah went to pick up the Italian takeout, which took longer than we expected to be ready so there wasn’t time for a picnic before our parent-teacher conference. We’d requested one because the teacher was new and we wanted to explain more about the accommodations in North’s 504 plan. He seemed very nice and was impressively fluent with North’s pronouns.

After that, Beth and North walked to Starbucks and brought home treats for everyone. I got a latte and a doughnut. I worked some more and then took a walk on the beach and Noah and I read a little before I started cooking dinner. (We didn’t do our Christmas card photo shoot that afternoon because Noah wanted to use his drone to take some of the pictures and it was windy.)

After we’d eaten dinner, we had cake and ice cream and Beth opened her presents. I got her a pair of pajama bottoms with Peanuts characters on them, Noah got her a bottle of fancy olive oil, and North got her some French drinking chocolate. She seemed pleased with the cake and presents. She just turned fifty-four, so I’m hoping her fifty-fifth year will be better than this past one (on many fronts). I’m feeling optimistic that it will be.

The birthday girl chose the evening’s entertainment, so we watched The Animaniacs before splitting up to watch The Handmaid’s Tale (Noah and me) and The Crown (Beth). Beth and North also took a walk down to the beach to look at the stars in a clearer sky than when North and I took our night walk.

Tuesday

Beth, North, and I went on another breakfast expedition at eight, this time to Café a-Go-Go, where we got takeout coffee, hot chocolate, and pastries and had a nice walk on the boardwalk. It was well past sunrise when we set out, but the light still looked new and golden and where it touched the swelling waves it turned them a translucent green.

We ate at home, supplementing our sweets with eggs, yogurt, and banana. I settled into my corner-of-the-porch office again to work. North’s last class for the week was over around eleven and Noah’s just before three, which was around the time I finished the sales sheet. The kids still had homework, but I was finished with work for the week, and happy about it.

It was less windy, so once North woke from an afternoon nap, we headed down to the beach and Beth and Noah took turns taking pictures of us in pairs or all together (using the drone for the group shots). It was a sunny day and the sea was a brilliant blue. I’d told the kids to pack red or green clothes but I hadn’t said anything to Beth because often the photos on the card are just the kids. When I decided it would be nice to have all of us, I was pleased that I happened to have a red flannel shirt and Beth had a green sweater, so we made a festive mix. We did some photos with masks because I thought it said something about the past year, but in the end we decided not to use any of those. After we were finished, Noah and I strolled up the boardwalk to Funland so he could fly the drone over it because North wanted to know what it looked like in the off season.

North made Mushroom Wellington for dinner, which other than Thanksgiving, was the fanciest dinner we had all week. After dinner we looked at the drone footage and noted with interest which rides at Funland have been stored off the premises and which are still there but partly disassembled. The drone is really the gift that keeps on giving. Beth made a fire and we roasted marshmallows for S’mores and watched the last episode of season 3 of Blackish, the one in which DeVante is born. Sorry for the spoiler if you, like us, are three and a half years behind in this show.

Wednesday

Wednesday was a little less busy than the last two days. We ordered takeout from Egg for breakfast (I got pumpkin praline French toast) and Japanese for lunch (I got seaweed salad and udon noodles with vegetables and tofu). While we were still at home and planning the trip, Beth and I decided we’d only get takeout for dinner two nights and cook all the other nights, but we failed to specify how many times we’d get takeout for breakfast and lunch and once we were there everyone had favorites they wanted to have, so we ended up getting takeout more days than not and sometimes twice in a day. It might have been because we weren’t going to do a lot of the things we often do on this trip, like going to the holiday sing-along or shopping in the downtown stores on Black Friday, so this was something we could do.

In between breakfast and lunch, Noah and I read a couple chapters of our book, and after lunch and a conference call Beth had to attend, we made a foray into downtown Rehoboth. Beth, Noah, and I got pumpkin-cinnamon frozen custard at Kohr’s stand and North got ice cream on a some kind of European pancake-like confection. We made stops at several stores we decided we would visit: 1) Candy Kitchen where I went in alone with a list of what everyone wanted, 2) the bookstore, where Noah and I had placed orders for Christmas gifts online ahead of time and picked them up at the counter, and 3) a store or maybe two North wanted to visit and could not identify because it was to get something for me, but Beth approved and accompanied them.

I was in and out of the bookstore pretty quickly, but I was there long enough to see the store had gone all in for its native son President-elect. As I stood at the counter which also had a big display of President Obama’s new book and some RBG merchandise, I heard one harried sounding staff member tell another she had to go to the “Biden table” to see if they had sold out of “I’m a Biden Girl” hats. I also spied Biden earrings (in case you wanted his face dangling from your earlobes) and—I swear I am not making this up—Joe Biden scented candles. I was trying not to touch things I wasn’t buying so I didn’t find out what it smelled like, but the label said it was “just like that weird dream you had.” Later I read this article in the Post about how Rehoboth, where Biden has a vacation house, has gone kind of Biden-crazy and I learned the candle smells like orange Gatorade, which I’m guessing is a favorite of his. Anyway, if you’re fond of Rehoboth or Biden, the article is worth a read. It was fun to hear the owners of so many businesses we frequent (Browseabout, Egg, the soap store) talk about him.

Noah and I headed back to the house, laden with candy and books, and he did some homework while I puttered about for a while, attending to the three loads of laundry I had going, and just before dark headed down to the beach to watch the sunset. It was a cloudy afternoon and when I got there the sky was white and light gray, gradually darkening to slate with a smudge of pink at the horizon. I sat on the sand for about a half hour and then walked a little on the boardwalk, watching the moon’s bright edge occasionally slip out from behind the clouds and then slide back.

Noah made pasta for dinner and afterward he needed to work on an assignment for his audio production class that was due that evening, so Beth and North watched The Fosters while I curled up on the couch with a comforter and some escapist fiction. I’ve been reading this rather long book for two months and I’m only about two-thirds of the way through it so maybe I will still be reading it at Christmas.

Thanksgiving

North made pumpkin cinnamon rolls with maple-cream cheese frosting for breakfast, which we ate with veggie sausage. The morning and early afternoon were rainy and Noah was taking a day off from homework, so we spent a few hours reading our book and watching The Handmaid’s Tale. We are close to the end of the third season and if you’ve seen it you know some episodes are almost unbearably suspenseful. When we finish it’s going to be hard to wait for the new season, which doesn’t even have a release date yet, though it’s supposed to be sometime next year, maybe spring.

I went down to the beach to sit and watch the ocean for a bit before it was time to cook. In the space of about forty-five minutes, I saw a family, and then a lone woman get into the ocean and swim (albeit briefly). It was a very warm day for late November, in the high sixties, but I can’t imagine the water was warm, so that was surprising. On the way back to the house I was noticing all the footprints in the sand—human, canine, and avian—and how the afternoon shadows filled them.

Back at the house, we made our traditional turkey centerpieces out of apples, toothpicks, raisins, dried cranberries, and olives and everyone pitched in to make a feast of tofu roast, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and rolls. Before we ate we shared our gratitudes and there was a lot of overlap—family, the ocean, and the changing of the political tide.

After dinner, Beth, North, and I took a walk down to the beach. The light reflecting off the undersides of the cresting waves was so bright that at first North thought it was phosphorescent seaweed. Then we came home and watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Mayflower Voyagers.

Black Friday

I knew Black Friday was going to seem strange because we had no plans to shop or to attend Rehoboth’s holiday sing-along and tree lighting. The origin of this traditional off-season beach trip was an annual Christmas-shopping-and-see-Santa-on-the-boardwalk weekend in early to mid-December we used to take when the kids were small. Then, six years ago it became a long weekend over Thanksgiving, so we could have a little longer at the beach, and we’ve come at Thanksgiving every year since then except one. This year’s week-long trip is probably a one-time thing, made possible by the fact that no-one has to go to work or school anymore to do work or school.

But ironically, even though we probably had time to most or all of our shopping, we only did the very little we did on Wednesday.  Instead of shopping on Friday, we took three walks.

In the morning North and I walked to Dave & Skippy’s to get a bagel and an iced tea for them and to Greene Man to get an apple-beet-carrot-ginger juice for me. Or rather, I walked and North wheeled. Over the course of the week, they ended up using the wheelchair for all trips that were more than a few blocks long. We ate and drank on a boardwalk pavilion right next to the tent under which television news reporters had been camped out since Wednesday. Beth suspected they were using the boardwalk as a background for stories about Joe Biden, who was in town for Thanksgiving, though they weren’t broadcasting while we were there.

When we got back, I hung the laundry up on the clothesline behind the house and Noah and I read. Then we had a lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers before Beth, Noah, and I headed out on the second walk of the day, Gordons Pond Trail, which goes through a salt marsh. The trail is just over three miles long. We walked about half of it and then turned back, stopping along the way at an observation platform. We usually see a lot of water birds here, but this time there weren’t any except ducks. Beth pointed out we usually come in the summer. Noah was going to fly his drone over the water, but the airspace was restricted, possibly because Biden’s house is quite close. In fact, we were hoping to drive by it on our way home, but the street was closed off. It made me think with some sympathy that it’s going to be harder for the President-elect to enjoy his favorite places in Rehoboth for the next several years, though I hear that shortly after the election he did manage to take a bike ride on the same trail we’d just hiked.

The combination of a big lunch and a long walk made me sleepy so when we returned to the house, I had a nap and surprised myself by sleeping pretty deeply for almost an hour.  We got pizza delivered for dinner. The night of the holiday sing-along we usually have Grotto pizza and then wander through the restaurant, looking at little Christmas trees local charities decorate and deciding which ones to donate to, but not this year. It’s possible Grotto is open for inside dining and the trees are there. I didn’t check, but we noticed a lot of restaurants in town were serving people inside, though others were outdoor seating or takeout only. (Greene Man had someone taking orders on the porch and passing the food around a plexiglass divider.)

The sing-along was canceled, not that we would have gone if it was taking place. Scroll down to the color photo with the bandstand if you want a look at how crowded it often is. We are probably somewhere in this photo. We were there that year. For our third walk of the day, Beth, North, and I went to visit the lit up tree, sans singing crowds. They were playing recorded music from the Nutcracker in the vicinity of the tree. It was a little sad to be there without people singing or families lining up for a chance to visit Santa’s little house on the boardwalk, which was not there this year, not even the letterbox. The boardwalk lights were not up this year either, maybe to discourage crowds, though Beth and I have noticed the display seems to get smaller every year, so maybe they’re phasing it out by attrition as the lights break down.

Even so I wasn’t too sad to have a pizza dinner, a walk with my wife and youngest on the boardwalk with the moonlight glinting off the waves again, and a pretty tree to admire. One thing 2020 has taught us is how to appreciate what’s at hand, even when it’s not what we usually have. Back at the house, we watched our first Christmas specials of the year, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Saturday

We packed up and left the house in the morning. The kids and I went down to the beach one last time while Beth returned the keys to the realty. They stood barefoot at the waterline and let twenty waves wash over their bare feet, while I stood a little behind them in my rubber boots, trying not to get my socks or jeans’ cuffs wet. The number of waves in this ritual is determined by the final digits of the year. The kids got into a discussion about whether it was the last two or the last three and if in 2100, they will need to stand barefoot in freezing cold water for one hundred waves or none. I pointed out that in 2100, they will be ninety-four and ninety-nine and, maybe, just maybe, it won’t be an issue. “We’ll still be coming to the beach,” North assured me. I guess they really are my kids.

I know if I’m still around when I’m ninety-nine, I will still want to go beach.

Green Light for the Beach: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 16

The first day North was out of the hospital, Beth texted me from their physical therapy appointment: “Green light for the beach.” Apparently, the therapist thought it would be fine to go.

So we went.

Saturday

We got a late start out of the house at 2 p.m., two hours later than we intended, and then there was a lot of traffic before the Bay Bridge, so it was almost four-thirty when we stopped at our traditional lunch spot, the Taco Bell and Dairy Queen right past the bridge (and yes, we did wait that long to eat lunch, snacking on garlic rye crisps and dried apricots in the car).

We stopped at our favorite farm stand and got a lot of produce, and arrived in Rehoboth around 7:30. We were all charmed by the house, which was nicer than it looked in its online pictures. It was wood-paneled with a soaring ceiling over the dining room and a sort of indoor veranda over the living room. The kitchen was a cheerful aqua color and spacious. There were two screened porches, a big one, and a little one with a desk I used as a writing table to write a lot of this post. It was also more house than we needed—five bedrooms. It’s harder to find little two or three bedroom cottages than it was in the nineties when we started vacationing in Rehoboth. Sadly, a lot of them have been torn down and replaced with larger houses.  But the space allowed us to spread out. Noah and I used one of the extra upstairs bedrooms as a reading room, and all week I kept imagining how we’d assign the rooms if we had our mothers and my sister and her family with us. We missed them a lot.

The only two drawbacks of the house were that 1) it wasn’t particularly accessible (we’d rented it back when North was on crutches, but not in a wheelchair) so we had to lift that chair up and down the front and back steps over and over, and 2) when we got there the thermostat was in a lockbox and set to 73 degrees and for the first couple days we were freezing, until we got the realty to open the box and let us set it.

The main reason we’d chosen this house was that it was a block from the beach, and we imagined North would be able to get to the beach on their own and would spend hours every day swimming. Clearly, that plan would have to be adjusted.

After unpacking the food, Beth, North, and I slipped down to the boardwalk. We were near the south end of it (we usually stay further north). There was an accessible path made of woven plastic that extended a little ways down the beach, close enough to see the water, so we wheeled North down it. We returned to the boardwalk, found the nearest beach wheelchair shed (five blocks away and closed for the day) so we’d know where it was, and then we peeked into Funland to see what their safety procedures looked like, but most of the entrances were blocked off and we couldn’t really see. Beth did manage to talk to an employee and ascertained that the Haunted Mansion was accessible. I don’t think North would want to go if they couldn’t do that.

We opted to turn around there because the crowds were getting thicker and not as many people were wearing masks as I would have liked (maybe half). Besides, it was getting late. We had a cold supper of cheese and crackers and fruit, as late as Europeans, Beth said. (It was past nine.) Then North did their physical therapy exercises and I cleaned up the kitchen and we turned in late (for us—it might have been eleven).

Sunday

Beth went out in the morning to get some breakfast groceries and we all ate and Beth and North went for another stroll on the boardwalk while I was still eating. When they returned they reported the crowds were sparser and a higher percentage of people were wearing masks in the daytime. I hit the beach around ten. It was a warm, muggy, foggy day. I could see the lifeguards from the water so I assumed they could see me, but the next lifeguard stand to the north was shrouded in fog and I couldn’t see the one to the south (which was further away) at all. The houses up on shore were partially obscured. It was kind of an eerie swim, but good to be in the water.

I swam about forty minutes, then took a short walk and returned to the house so Beth and I could menu plan and make a grocery list.  Once that was done, she left to go shopping, and I had lunch, read with Noah in our reading room, and then put the groceries away when she came home, and made lunch for North.

Around three, the kids and I left for the beach. The sky was darkening as we walked to the beach wheelchair shed and many more people were leaving the beach than arriving. This seemed like a bad sign, but I called for the beach patrol to unlock a chair for us. Someone arrived pretty quickly and soon we were rolling North down to the water. Their goal was to sit on the wet sand and feel the water on their feet and legs. It’s such a nice service that these chairs are available for anyone who needs them for free, but just as the big, puffy wheels hit the wet sand, the lifeguards heard thunder and blew their whistles and everyone had to get out of the water. So North’s vision was not realized that day. I was hoping to salvage the outing by asking if they wanted to stroll down the beach in the chair, or maybe just stay where we were and watch the waves, when a lifeguard came over and explained we had to leave the beach, not just the water.

We returned the beach wheelchair, got North back into the regular wheelchair, and pushed them up to the boardwalk. It was nice to have Noah’s help whenever he came to the beach. (And I would like to have the upper body strength of a nineteen-year-old boy who doesn’t even work out.) I eyed the boardwalk, wondering if a consolation prize of a trip to Candy Kitchen was feasible, but everyone who had left the beach seemed to be on the boardwalk now, plus the people who’d already been there, so we turned back. The storm never materialized.

Back at the house, Noah and I watched The Magicians while Beth and North watched The Fosters and then I blogged on the writing porch, while Beth made a dinner of veggie burgers and hot dogs, corn on the cob, potato salad, and watermelon.

After dinner, we ventured out to see if the boardwalk was less crowded on a Sunday night than a Saturday night. The answer was not really, but by ducking down side streets and looping back, we avoided the biggest crowds, and we got ice cream on Rehoboth Ave.  We also got a better look into Funland. What I saw in terms of distancing and masks was encouraging. We returned to a less populated part of the boardwalk to eat our ice cream and I stayed a bit after everyone else had gone home to watch the sky over the ocean get pinker and then grow dark.

Monday

I was on the beach by 9:45, leaving North and Beth at the dining room table, attending their online summer school course and working, respectively. It was a hot, sunny day so I went straight to the water where I swam for almost an hour. I saw pelicans and dolphins and only left the beach, reluctantly, at 11:15 because I didn’t want to get too much sun.

At the house I made lunch for myself and North, who had just finished class, then I read with Noah, and wrote some get-out-the-vote postcards for a special election in Tennessee. Beth drove me to the post office to mail them so I could get North to the beach sooner.

This time the day was sunny, with no hint of lightning or thunder so we got the beach wheelchair down to the water and I eased North out of it so they could sit on the sand, with the water running over their legs and sometimes covering them as high as their chest. I noticed when the water moved their thighs they were able to move them back into position without using their hands. They said it was partly being able to move better in the water, and partly the water itself, changing direction and pushing their legs back.

I texted Noah to come because it was almost time to return the beach wheelchair. Getting North down to the water was doable (but difficult) with one person, but getting back was definitely a two-person job.

We got Grandpa Mac (build-your-own-pasta-bowls) delivered for dinner and watched Babette’s Feast, after a half-hour negotiation about what to watch. I hadn’t seen it in decades, but it holds up and the kids liked it, too, especially North.

Tuesday

I took North to the beach in the morning. North thought they’d try sitting in the chair, pushed a little bit into the water because the man who checked out the chair said you can do that and North thought they’d get less sand in their suit that way. But even with the brake set, the chair crept forward when the sand under its wheels eroded in the waves and I was struggling to control it when three beachgoers ran to help. After that, I parked it on the dry sand and North scooched down to the water again. While we were in the water, we saw dolphins and pelicans but the most exciting thing I saw was North kneeling, sometimes holding my hands, but sometimes unsupported when the water got deep enough around them. Beth got to see it, too, because she’d come to help get North off the beach. (Unfortunately, they felt weaker the next day and attributed it to overexertion and were never able to do it again.)

Noah and Beth usually do a puzzle on vacations and this year they had a challenging one to tackle. It was a Frank Lloyd Wright design meant to evoke saguaro cacti and cactus flowers. North got it for Noah for Christmas. Beth and Noah started it Tuesday after lunch.

While they were getting started, I ventured to Candy Kitchen and made a big purchase because we’d decided to limit ourselves to one trip this year instead of a few. I got fudge, sea salt caramels, gummy pizza slices, truffles, and a few other things. The boardwalk wasn’t crowded at all and when I arrived I was the only one in the store. Beth and I decided, based on patterns we’d observed, that from then on we’d only go the boardwalk on weekdays, during the daytime.  Other than Candy Kitchen and the grocery store, we also kept out of the indoor stores we usually visit—the tea and spice shop, our favorite coffeeshop, t-shirt shops, the bookstore, the crocs outlet on the highway. We also skipped the water park, not that North could have gone this year anyway.

After I got back with the candy, Noah and I took a late afternoon trip to the beach. He brought his drone and got some great footage. While he was filming, I had a nice swim. It was sunny and the surface of the water was silvery, with all the little ripples sharply defined. It was clearer than usual, too, and I could see a little fish about the size of my finger swimming near the surface. I also saw a couple of jellyfish but I didn’t see the one that stung the inside of my wrist. It left a red mark, but it faded quickly and hurt less than a bee sting. (I was in a good position to judge because the prior week while waiting for a bus to go to the hospital, I was stung by a bee and the memory was fresh.)

Beth made her traditional beach week meal that night—gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce, and a spread of fancy cheeses. This year she added watermelon agua fresca to the meal. (North chopped ten cups of watermelon for it.)  We called it Beth’s Feast and before we ate, Noah said, “Not a word about the food.” (This is a line from Babette’s Feast.)

While I did the dishes, Beth and Noah watched The Mandalorian, then we all played Cards Against Humanity and then Beth and North went for a walk while Noah and I watched The Magicians.

“We did all the things,” I said to Beth as we went to bed, but despite our busy evening, I couldn’t sleep that night, so I slipped down to the beach after Beth had fallen asleep, to stand on the sand and watch the heat lightning.

Wednesday

I woke up stiff and sore from pushing the beach wheelchair uphill the day before, but a morning swim, followed by sitting in a beach chair in the sun watching the waves, helped loosen me up. After lunch, we all headed to the boardwalk for treats. Noah and I shared a paper cup of fries, and North and Beth got gelati (a parfait of soft serve and Italian ice). I wanted funnel cake but I didn’t think it would be wise to eat it right after fries, so I decided to wait.

Noah went home while the rest of us went to the beach. With two adults, we could let North go a little deeper into the water as we each held one of their hands to stabilize them as they sat in the water. Some of the waves were big enough they could duck their head under them. Before we left, I had a brief swim. It was another sunny day with calm water in blue, green, and brown sections.

After we returned the beach wheelchair, Beth and North headed home and I got my funnel cake, which I ate very slowly in the shade of the porch of the restroom pavilion next to Funland. I only ate half of it—those things are enormous.

Next I came home and made dinner (a cucumber salad with yogurt-dill dressing and hard-boiled egg grated over it). It was ready early so Noah and I read before dinner and then after dinner Beth and the kids played a game they found in the house, while I blogged.

Thursday

Beth and Noah were out the door by eight the next morning. He wanted to fly the drone on another part of the beach, over some of the more iconic boardwalk businesses before many people were there. He flew over the Dolles sign and some dolphins, (but from pretty far away because he didn’t want to disturb them). Here’s about five minutes of his footage from both drone expeditions.

North got up twenty minutes after they left, just as I was about to wake them for their 9 a.m. Foundations of Tech class. (They decided later that day they wanted to drop half of the class and do the equivalent of a semester instead of a year over the course of five weeks because they were finding it more difficult than expected and they would have a lot going on with doctors’ appointments once we got back home.)

I made them breakfast, then headed to the beach, where I spent an hour and forty-five minutes at the beach, swimming and watching the waves from the sand.

I returned to the house, showered, read with Noah, and then we all walked down to the boardwalk again to have lunch at the crepe stall in an alley off Rehoboth Ave. It was while we were eating lunch that I finally agreed to North’s plan to go deeper in the water inside an inflatable ring with a mother on each side. (I was surprised they got Beth on board before me, as she’s generally more cautious about this kind of thing.)

Beth went to a 5 & 10 to purchase the ring, while I secured the beach wheelchair and then we all met up. It was tricky getting into and out of the water, but in between North had an experience more like swimming and they didn’t drown, so we considered it a success.

We couldn’t stay in the water too long, though, because North and I had reservations at Funland, which is operating at 20% capacity, with distancing on the rides and masks required. As a result of the reduced crowds, there were no lines to speak of, and people were pretty good about distancing. Not all of the rides are accessible, but two of North’s favorites, the Sea Dragon and the Haunted Mansion, were so they rode them three times each. I accompanied them in the Mansion and having never done it three times in one day before, I can now tell you on the second ride you notice little details you missed the first time, but by the third time it’s pretty much given up all its secrets. North also rode the helicopters twice and the bumper cars once. They were a little frustrated by a few rides that would have been accessible if not for one step up.

“Today was fun,” they said as we proceeded down the boardwalk toward home, where penne with a tomato-mushroom sauce Beth and Noah had made awaited. We ate dinner listening to a presentation about the fall semester at Ithaca on a laptop. Then after I did the dishes, there were games, and work on the puzzle, and blogging. But sadly, Beth was up late working, for the second night in a row.

Friday

I woke already sad to be leaving in a day. Sometimes at the end of beach week I feel peaceful and satisfied, but sometimes I’m just really sad and I already knew what kind of departure this was going to be.  Rain was predicted in the morning, so we spent it inside. Noah and I read and watched the season four finale of The Magicians while rain pelted the windows. It was over by lunchtime, so we all went to the beach and North got to try out the ring again. We never really mastered getting in and out of the water. It’s a terrifying process actually when the waves are deep enough to go over your child’s head, but not deep enough for them to float in the ring, though North seemed pretty unfazed by it. And then Beth got knocked down by a wave on the way out and skinned both her shins. But in between, we spent a nice hour in the water and it made North very happy.

The sky was all kinds of sky at once, part overcast, part sunny, with dark gray storm clouds out at sea. These had black strands hanging down Beth thought might be rain. When we got out, Beth and the kids went to the boardwalk for treats, but in a last-day calculus, I decided I’d rather have more beach time than ice cream so I stayed.  A big pod of dolphins showed up and started fishing in front of me, splashing, and flipping their tails out of the water. (I saw the back third of one of them all the way to the tip of its tail.) They were there for a half hour. It was kind of magical. I also saw osprey soaring over me with fish in their talons. I’d been seeing that all week, the fishing seemed better than usual for them.

When my family returned, just missing the dolphins, we walked toward home, but as we got close I realized I wasn’t done yet, and I split off again to return to the beach just in front of our block, where I rested on my towel and then sat up and watched the ocean, and then had my last swim in the golden early evening light. The water was calm, as it had been all week, so I floated on my back and looked at the cottony clouds and a gull circling over my head.

Back at the house, we had pizza delivered and ate it on the screened porch, and talked about how we’d missed being with our usual beach crew of extended family. Then I cleaned the kitchen, Beth and Noah finished the puzzle, we all watched an episode of Speechless, and started to pack up the house. We knew from our experience trying to get on the road a week earlier, it takes longer now that North can’t help as much and there’s more equipment to fit in and on top of the car.

Saturday

As a result of doing a lot of leaving-the-house chores the night before we got out of the house pretty smoothly and close to on time. Beth drove to the realty to return the keys while the kids and I went to the boardwalk to say goodbye to the ocean. This ritual had to be revised because it wasn’t worth the hassle of getting North down to the water, so instead we brought the water to North. We left the chair at the end of the plastic path where North could see us and we stood with our feet in the water for the requisite twenty waves, then filled a plastic water bottle with ocean water, came back and poured it on North’s feet.

And with that, our strange week at the beach was over.

Clues: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 15

When you last left us, almost two weeks ago, North was sitting in the shallow water at the edge of Cayuga Lake, in Ithaca, New York, and they were unable to stand, even with support. They’d lost control of their thigh muscles, though they had some strength in their hips, glutes, calves, and feet. Though a combination of pushing with their lower legs and us guiding them they could scoot on their bottom and we got them to the picnic table just feet from the water where we’d eaten lunch, though the pebbly incline was a challenge.

North had been complaining of occasional muscle weakness prior to this incident, but nothing on this scale. We hoped it would pass, like the other times, which never lasted more than a half hour, but in the meantime, we needed to get them back to the house. The car was parked in a lot that was in sight, but with North unable to walk, it might as well have been on the moon. There was a service road that came close to the table so Beth went to ask the staff at the park entrance if she could drive on it, but they weren’t authorized to let her (they were young and seemed afraid to break rules).

Beth returned to the table just as a park police officer drove by and after she explained the situation, he (rather reluctantly) said she could drive on the road. Here Beth got annoyed because he wasn’t a teenager with a summer job and he didn’t have to make it hard. Anyway, we got North from the table to the car—I honestly don’t remember how—and drove back to the house.

After some time passed and North’s condition did not improve, we had to decide whether or not to go the ER. You may find it strange that we didn’t for another two days, but we’ve been through a lot of mysterious maladies with North and Beth and I both thought it would be better to get home and take them to Children’s where they’ve been going since they were eight years old. The doctors in neurology and at the pain clinic have the big picture—the month and a half of not speaking (third grade), the year of broken bones (fifth grade), the complex migraine that left their hands and feet paralyzed (also fifth grade), the fracture that left them on crutches for nine months (seventh to eighth grade). We wouldn’t have to try to explain the whole saga to someone new. Also, having had two overnight ER visits with North over the past few years, no one was eager to repeat that experience.

So that’s why we decided to stay at the house. We switched beds so Beth could sleep with North in our bed and I slept in North’s bed. The next day, North still couldn’t move their legs. Beth went to a medical supply store (two actually) while North attended the first and second sessions of an online summer school class they’re taking. Beth returned with a walker, the kind with a seat, that we could use to transport North to restrooms on our drive home. The car was too packed with the contents of Noah’s dorm room to fit a wheelchair.

We left our AinBnB in the early afternoon. “Goodbye, Ithaca. Hope to see you again soon,” Beth said, as we pulled out of the driveway.

“Goodbye, Ithaca,” Noah said, sounding wistful.

A quick diversion on that topic: since we left Ithaca, Maryland has been put on the list of states from which New York will not accept visitors unless they quarantine for two weeks on arrival. Ithaca College’s current policy is that students from these states cannot return to campus until their home states come off the list, which now consists of thirty-one states. I wonder if the list continues to grow if Ithaca will go entirely online for the fall, but as of right now the plan is still a rolling schedule of arrivals from early September to early October, and hybrid classes you can attend in person or remotely. (And while we’re talking about school, our K-12 school district is completely online at least through late January, we recently learned.)

But back to this story… We got home Monday evening. While we were driving, we’d gotten a call back from the doctor who manages North’s case at the pain clinic, or rather a call from someone else saying she was in surgery and couldn’t call back until the next day.

When she did call, late Tuesday morning, she said to go to the ER at Children’s rather than get an appointment at the pain clinic. Beth and North went and to our surprise, because it’s never happened before when we go to the ER, North was admitted. They got a COVID test (negative) and a series of exams and around eight p.m., they got a room. It was a really nice room, spacious because it’s usually a double, and with a view of the Washington monument and the Capitol. Beth came home to get some things for North and then she returned and spent the night in a fold-out chair in the room.

All the next day, North saw more medical personnel and had more exams. I got to the hospital just in time for the MRI. Only one parent per patient is allowed in the hospital at a time and I’d come to relieve Beth. To get there I had to take public transportation (a bus, a train, and a shuttle), which I hadn’t done since March (well, until the previous day when I’d taken a bus to go get some groceries from the Co-op in Beth’s absence).

The MRI took a long time because it was actually two MRIs, one with contrast and one without and they had to change North’s IV in between because it wasn’t working. It was freezing cold and very loud in the room, but North didn’t complain and it was much louder (and hot) in the machine, so I won’t either.

After the MRI, North felt a migraine coming on, probably from the noise, and because it took an hour and a half and two requests to get a nurse to come with painkiller, it developed into a full-blown one, which I haven’t seen in years. (They’ve gotten very good at detecting them and heading them off.)

After they’d recovered, we had dinner in the room and played Sleeping Queens until Beth came to take me home and then return to the hospital. She said as I’m the lighter sleeper I’d never get to sleep with all the lights and noise of a hospital, which was generous of her.

Wednesday was also the thirty-third anniversary of our first date, which we usually celebrate, but we didn’t really this year. As she was leaving the house either the first or second time she went to the hospital that day, Beth said it was not the anniversary either of us would have envisioned, but then she paused and noted we were talking about kids pretty early on in the relationship (even though we took a long time to have them) so maybe it was appropriate.

We found out the next day the MRI hadn’t turned up any physical reason for North’s immobility. This didn’t surprise us or the neurological team. They concluded it was a similar to the misfiring that causes North’s chronic pain, but this time in response to stress, rather than an overreaction to a physical injury. Possible stressors include: the pandemic, the physical and psychological toll of being in pain since February, the car that crashed into our fence in late May (North was just a few feet away), and Matthew’s death. 

That all seemed to make sense on the surface, but as North pointed out, when it struck, they were swimming, and actually feeling pretty relaxed, as any kind of water is their happy place. I find it interesting that it’s their legs that are affected because that’s what happened to Matthew and North was the one who found him half-paralyzed. The doctors (who are not literature Ph.Ds) find the symbolism less compelling. More to the point, they think that physical therapy can get their brain and their legs communicating again. If that happens, all the clues and theories don’t really matter.

Beth and were texting and talking about all this on the phone all day. When I returned to the hospital in the afternoon, not much was going on by that point, except people coming to take North’s vital signs and a social worker who dropped by. We played Clue and Sleeping Queens again and were just about to try ordering dinner again (the line had been busy earlier) when a nurse came by with discharge papers. We were surprised as we didn’t think that was even on the table until the next day, and last we heard, the neurological team was debating discharge to home or to a rehabilitation hospital.  Also, we had a prescription for physical therapy (starting the next day) but not for a medication that had been discussed. And we didn’t have the signature we needed for a handicap parking permit. But we were all eager to have North home and Beth had already acquired a wheelchair, a grab bar for the shower, and a shower stool. So we decided to call with our outstanding questions the next day and just get out of Dodge. (We did order and eat our dinner while we were waiting for some more paperwork.)

Weighing on our minds all through this was the fact that we had a house in Rehoboth one block from the beach rented for a week, starting Saturday. We decided Beth would discuss it with the physical therapist the next day and I joked we were a flight risk. “We are so a flight risk,” Beth said. That evening, with North in our custody, it was starting to seem possible we would actually go.

To be continued…

Somewhat Normal: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 14

Pirates of Penzance

On the second Wednesday of July, North knocked on the door of Noah’s room, where he and I were reading in the air conditioning. When I yelled, “Come in,” they lunged into the room brandishing a wooden sword they’d just finished covering in aluminum foil.  It was a prop for their role as Frederick, the reluctant pirate in a half-day, outdoor drama camp production of Pirates of Penzance.

The camp was two weeks long and held in a park, with socially distanced blocking and choreography. Because there was only half the time as usual to prepare for the show, campers were making some of their props and costumes at home and the performance would be more of a revue of selected songs than a shortened version of the play.

There were contingency plans for rain, including rescheduling camp hours during the weekend or on July 3 (which they had off because it was a federal holiday), rehearsing in bathing suits, or rehearsing at home on Zoom. However, there was no morning rain the first week and this pattern held for most of the second week. By Wednesday evening, however, the director, Gretchen, had become concerned about forecasts for all-day thunderstorms on Friday, performance day. After hurried consultation with all the families of the campers (half as many as usual to keep distancing manageable), she settled on a plan of having an extra rehearsal late Thursday afternoon and to perform Thursday evening, rather than Friday morning.

This meant North was at camp from nine to noon, at a physical therapy appointment in the city at 1:45, then at another camp session that started at five and lasted until the performance began at seven, which was followed by a distanced cast-parent pizza party in the park. This is a normal level of activity for North in non-pandemic times, but quite unusual these days.

At showtime, the audience set up our blankets and chairs in family groups. The show began with a song with complicated choreography using parasols. All the actors were double-cast as daughters of the Major General and as pirates. I was glad the kids and I had watched a 1983 film version of the show—with Kevin Kline as the pirate king, Angela Lansbury as Ruth (the lady pirate), and Linda Ronstadt as Mabel—the night before camp started because I had no familiarity with the show and otherwise I would have had trouble following it.

There were nine actors, aged thirteen to sixteen, and two were Gretchen’s daughters. Gretchen used the fact that the sisters could stand next to each other to help fill in holes in the blocking in more natural-looking ways, to the extent anything in a show like Pirates is natural. (Gretchen had them work on operatic gestures and other techniques of melodramatic acting.) Here’s a clip of North’s first scene as Frederick, reassuring the frightened maidens that he’s no longer a pirate and therefore not a threat.

The scene that got the most laughs was probably the one in which the pirates are hiding behind rocks and there was one pirate left without a rock and when he tried to share one, the other pirates whipped out their swords and admonished, “Six feet!”

It was a fun show and pleasant to watch outdoors as the heat of the day began to ebb. One of the moms had organized a big pizza order and it wasn’t until shortly before it arrived that Beth and I realized we each thought the other had conveyed our order to her. So Beth had to place a separate order for us and go get it, but we were eating pretty soon after everyone else. We were seated within conversational distance of the mom of a girl North’s known since preschool and Zoë had come to watch the performance, so we all had people to talk to while we waited.

Something Gretchen said while she was introducing the play stuck with me. She was talking about the camp experience and how nice it was to have “a little semblance of something somewhat normal.” That’s why we let North attend this camp, though so much time unmasked and with other people, even standing far apart, did make me nervous.

Ithaca 

We did another somewhat normal thing the next day—we set out on a summer road trip. The official purpose of the trip was to clean out Noah’s dorm room (which he finally had permission to enter) but we decided to make a long weekend out of it.

Beth was scheduled to work Friday morning because we’d expected North to still be in camp, so she did, and we left around noon. We had a picnic lunch about an hour north of home and arrived in Ithaca about 7:30. At the house we met the two friendly resident cats, a calico named Opal and an orange tabby named Leo. By the time we’d unpacked, procured some pizza, eaten it at the house, and cleaned up from dinner, it was time for bed, past time actually. We were up until about eleven, which for me is late. We’d had a longish wait in the rain outside the pizza place, but while we were waiting a passerby informed us and the other little clusters of people that it was “the best pizza in town,” so that was encouraging.

No one slept well because it’s an odd feature of the AirBnB that none of the windows had any dressings except blinds in the bathroom and a sheer bit of fabric on our bedroom window. So we were mostly up with the sun.

We had breakfast in the house and in the late morning Beth and Noah headed to his dorm, while I had a nap. Only two people per family were allowed in and the appointments were spread out so they didn’t see another family the whole time they were there, except one heading into another dorm. (Noah did hear one on another floor of his dorm.) When they came back to the house, Beth said the whole process was “easy peasy.” They brought take-out back with them and Noah was so happy to be reunited with his camera that he started taking pictures of North eating their lunch before he had his.

We spent the afternoon in a series of parks. We hiked part of the trail to Taughanook Falls, but North got tired, so we turned back and drove to the overlook instead. Before we left the trail, though, we waded into the almost dry river, scrambling over the pocked riverbed, full of puddles.      

At Ithaca Falls, there was deeper water to wade and swim in so we stayed there a long time. This was the third or fourth waterfall of the day and it was here Beth said, “There’s another beautiful waterfall around every damn corner.” It’s true. Ithaca is ridiculously lovely. There a reason they said “Ithaca is gorges.” (I swear I’m going to buy that t-shirt someday.) There was a conveniently located log in the water that afforded a nice view of the waterfall so we sat there awhile and Beth said, “This is the best log I have ever sat on.”

We went back to the house where Noah showed us his photos of the trip so far and he and I read a chapter of Homeland. Then we got sushi and ate it at Stewart Park in a pavilion with a view of Cayuga Lake. On the way home we picked up ice cream from Purity, Ithaca’s most famous ice cream parlor and a family favorite.

Everyone slept better because we draped a quilt over the curtain rod in our room and piled pillows in front of the windows in the kids’ room. We had another outdoorsy day planned, but first we fortified ourselves at Waffle Frolic, which is the sort of restaurant where you can get ice cream, Nutella, or frosting on waffles. There are also healthier options, but that’s what we went with, though we did use buckwheat waffles as a base and added fruit and eggs on the side, so the meal was not devoid of nutrition. There were outdoor tables and it was our first time eating at a restaurant during the whole pandemic. It was hard to hear the staff calling out names to pick up food at the counter, but once we got our food it was quite pleasant.

We visited the Ithaca farmers’ market and the food co-op where we gathered food for a picnic. The farmers’ market is under a long wooden roof, with built-in stalls. It’s less extensive than the Takoma Park farmers’ market in terms of produce on offer, but there were more craft stalls. It’s always interesting to see another town’s market.

Next we drove around looking for a place we could swim. It had rained hard the night before so a lot of swimming places were closed because of presumed poor water quality. We ended up at Long Point State Park, also on Cayuga Lake. When we entered the park, and we asked if swimming was allowed, the young man in the booth said, “We can’t say you can, but we can’t say you can’t, and we won’t come get you if you do.” This was a surprising response, as we’d gotten a clear-cut no at the last park we’d tried. A little ominous, too, given what happened later, but we decided to go for it. We ate our lunch at a picnic table and then swam in the pebbly-bottomed lake, ringed with ridges of evergreen trees.

As at all the parks, Noah took a lot of pictures. I’d been thinking about how film and photography help him to connect to nature. In other words, it answers the question “What is the purpose of this activity?” he asked us at this very lake about a year ago.

We’d planned to move on to another park, one where drones are allowed, so around two p.m. North and I started to get out of the water. (Beth and Noah were already out.) Once I was out, North called me back to the water, to help them get to their feet, but when I pulled them up, their legs wouldn’t hold them.

To be continued…

Taking the Waters

Saturday

The day after Valentine’s Day we drove out to Berkeley Springs, where we were spending the long weekend. We arrived around noon and had just enough time to get lunch—vegetarian sliders for Beth and me and naan pizza for North—before our one o’clock appointment at the state park spa. 

There’s a warm spring in the park, which was used first by Native Americans, then colonists, including George Washington, who visited as a teenager and then returned throughout his life. You can see the outdoor tub he used. The spring water is tepid, a constant 74.3 degrees, and runs through a series of little canals in the park. There’s also a water fountain where you can fill bottles for free.

Inside the spa buildings, you can get various treatments, but we were there to take a Roman bath in a big, private, tiled bathtub filled with heated spring water. There’s a bench on one of the short sides and there was plenty of room for the three of us. We visited Berkeley Springs on the kids’ spring break several years ago and I remember it was a little crowded with four, but that could have been because the kids kept splashing each other. North said the water was hotter than they remembered, but it was about how I remembered it. You do feel very relaxed when you get out.

After our bath we browsed the shops in downtown Berkeley Springs. North, who has become a Wiccan—did I mention that? I don’t think I did—was particularly interested in checking out the crystal shop, but didn’t want to buy anything on our first day. We also wandered around an antique mall, where I found the issue of Life magazine from the week my mother was born and took a picture of it for her. It had a photograph of a young woman in short braids and a flight suit on the cover, with the caption “Air Force Pilot.” It was cool to see. There were also some non-antique things for sale, including Trump 2020 socks—less cool.

After window shopping, we checked into our room at the Capacon State Park lodge. Beth and I read for a while and North amused themselves with their phone until it was time to leave for dinner. The restaurant was still decorated for Valentine’s Day. There were heart-shaped balloons and a scattering of rose petals on every table and we were given three red roses. We had a very nice meal—starting with warm brie with apple slices, apple butter, and walnuts. I had a vegetable-pasta dish with smoked mushrooms and a creamy sauce made of pureed squash and crème brule for dessert. I was really pleased to see that on the menu because I had actually been thinking I was in the mood for crème brule as we were driving to Berkeley Springs.

Back in our room, we watched half of To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You to follow up on having just watched To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before on Valentine’s Day at home. (North thought we should watch a romantic movie, so we let them choose one.) Then we went to bed, but we didn’t sleep well, at least Beth and I didn’t, because the people in the room next door were conversing loudly into the wee hours. (They were square dancers staying at the lodge for an event and I’d said to Beth earlier that surely they’d go to bed early because they were an elderly bunch for the most part—but apparently we go to bed earlier than elderly square dancers.) This was unfortunate because I also had trouble getting to sleep at home on Friday night and after two consecutive nights of suboptimal sleep, I was really tired the next day.

Sunday

But I soldiered on. We had breakfast in the lodge restaurant and then we headed out for a hike along the C & O Canal and through the Paw Paw tunnel. This tunnel was bored through a ridge  in the nineteenth century to allow the canal to bypass a series of bends in the Potomac. It’s over three thousand feet long and very dark inside. There’s a muddy path—the ceiling drips—with a railing and it takes about fifteen minutes to walk from end to end. Beth lit the way in front of us so we could avoid stepping in puddles.

When you emerge the towpath continues beside the canal which has a steep rocky slope on either side. It’s made of shale, and there are frequent landslides, so there are nets to protect you from falling rock and in some places, the park service has scaled off loose rock and screwed metal plates into the rockface. (Someone had scratched Trump 2020 onto one of these. But it was not completely Trump country. We saw a Tulsi Gabbard lawn sign, of all things, one day.)

It was a mild, sunny day, probably in the forties, and there were a lot of rapidly melting icicles covering the rock and more or less continuously breaking off and shattering on the rocks or slipping into the water. If you looked closely you could see water running under the sheets of ice or in some cases inside hollowed out icicles. There was a place where the water splashing from a little waterfall had coated dried grass with a what looked like a spiky crown of ice. The last time we walked this path was in the spring, so I’d never seen all the different ice formations before. It was kind of magical.  A little further down the canal, there was open water and we saw a bunch of salamanders wriggling in it. 

Heading back toward the tunnel, North gathered up a bunch of shale shards and we threw them into the canal, trying to break the ice. It took a while to get one to go through, but eventually we both sunk some to the bottom of the canal. Back in the tunnel, North had the flashlight and they shone it on the opposite wall to reveal a lot of sleeping bats.

We returned to Berkeley Springs and had a late lunch at a café with really good coffee. I later said to Beth it tasted like the coffee at Mayorga, a coffee company that used to have a coffeeshop in our neck of the woods. Beth exclaimed that it was Mayorga coffee. She’d seen the bags of coffee beans. She then pronounced me a “coffee savant.”

After lunch we visited Give Purrs a Chance, a cat café and adoption center. Actually, we went right before lunch to see if there was food there, but it was heavy on the cats and light on the café, with no food on offer, so we left to eat and returned. I’d never been to a cat café before. This one is in a Victorian house. The cats have the run of the place, with one room reserved for shy cats and another one for kittens. We visited all the rooms. When the staff person asked us, “Do you want to see the kittens?” and we said yes, she said, “No one ever says, ‘No, I don’t want to see the kittens.’” We spent a lot of time in that room. North particularly liked a tiny, feisty, black kitten named Agnes. There was a staff person in the kitten room who asked everyone who came in “Do you have cats at home?” and then, “How many?” and no matter what you said, he’d answer, “That’s not enough.”

The whole house was furnished with cats in mind. There were pillows on the floors and upholstered chairs, and a castle made of cardboard with a lot of little rooms with pillows or cat beds inside. It was like a big dollhouse, full of cats. There were also a lot of empty shelves on the walls, spaced so that a reasonably good jumper could go from one to the other, all the way across the wall and we saw a cat named Connie do just that. Overall, I was impressed with what a nice place it would be for a cat who likes (or tolerates) strange people to live. Much nicer than the cage in a shelter where we got our cats. 

Before we left, North selected two balls to buy for our cats, who turned seventeen sometime this week. (We don’t know their exact birthday—the shelter said mid-February when we adopted them, so North assigned them Valentine’s Day and sometimes we remember to get them gifts on or around that day.)

We went back to the hotel and watched the rest of our movie. I had a headache that had gotten worse over the course of the afternoon and was starting to make me sick to my stomach. I almost stayed behind when Beth and North went for Chinese because I wasn’t sure if I could eat, but I’d just taken a painkiller and I thought my appetite might return when it kicked in, but it never really kicked in, so I just sat with them and didn’t order any food.

We went back to the hotel and I went straight to bed. It was 8:15 when my head hit the pillow and I was asleep not much later than that. North had the idea for me to sleep in the twin bed so Beth and North could watch something on the laptop on the queen bed. It worked out pretty well. Beth says the square dancers were at it again, but my body was determined to sleep and only heard them briefly around 10:45. I slept almost eleven hours. I can’t remember the last time I got so much sleep in one night, maybe before kids. Beth also got a better night’s sleep, thanks to earplugs.

Monday

I woke up feeling a lot better. We had breakfast at the same café so I had another fabulous latte, along with a breakfast sandwich on a biscuit. Then we went to Coolfont Resort, where we swam in the salt water pool and soaked in the hot tub. There was a nice view in the hot tub room, a couple evergreen trees right outside the window, with a ridge in the background.

We went back into Berkeley Springs one last time, North made a lot of purchases at the crystal shop, including a crystal apiece for Beth and me. I got clear quartz, which is supposed to help me be productive and self-aware. Beth got rainbow moonstone which is supposed to help with stress. While we were there, I picked up a birthday present for my niece—a wooden magic wand with a woman’s face at the top with crystals emerging from her head. The crystals look like icicles, my sister thought, when I texted her a photo, and she thought Lily-Mei would like it because she’s obsessed with Frozen. From there we went to a cheesemonger’s and bought some local mozzarella, some Manchego, and some amazing Dutch aged Gouda.

We picked up some other foodstuffs on the road and found some tables along the canal where we had a picnic lunch. After we ate, North threw rocks at the ice on the canal again, and then we drove home.

Beth said afterward that it was strange to be on a road trip without Noah. I felt the same way. It wasn’t our first weekend getaway without him, but I doubt he would have come on the church retreat we attended in September, so we both missed him more on this one. But at the same time, it was also nice to have a little trip as a threesome. 

We’ve been home and back to work and school for a few days. Beth’s been to the dentist, North goes to the orthodontist tomorrow, and we’ve all been to a trans kids’ and trans kids’ parents’ support group. North tried out for a part in the spring school play. Life rolls on. But I often find myself thinking about the waters of Berkeley Springs and its environs, in Roman baths, in canals little and big, in the Potomac River, and in swimming pools and hot tubs. 

Walkin’ Around the Christmas Trees

Friday-Sunday: Before Blackwater 

North’s last day of school before winter break was the Friday before Christmas. This was also the day Noah was returning from college and we had a party to attend, so it was a big day.

The party was for the family of a preschool classmate of North’s. They moved to Switzerland three years ago (around the time we were all wishing we could move to Switzerland) and they come back to the States for visits occasionally. When they’re in the D.C. area, someone from the Purple School will host a party so they can see as many people as possible in a limited period of time. It was good to see the family of honor and a few of North’s old classmates, all teenagers now, and their families. The hosts made an excellent squash and black bean chili and the expats brought Swiss chocolate and there was a gingerbread cookie decorating station and a charming five year old who wanted to decorate more cookies than she was allowed to eat so she started circulating through the room offering thickly frosted cookies. It was a fun party. Unfortunately, Beth didn’t get to stay long because she was coming from work and by that time North and I had been there an hour and a half and North was impatient to get to their next social engagement, a sleepover at Zoë’s, plus we had stuff to do at home before Noah’s bus arrived, so she couldn’t stay long.

Beth and I arrived at Union Station around 9:25 and had about a half hour wait for the bus. We got Noah some pizza and a chocolate milk at Sbarro, because we knew he probably hadn’t had time to procure himself much food for the ride. Sure enough, all he’d had since breakfast was a rest stop soft pretzel. The reason for his hasty departure was that he had an unfinished, overdue paper he’d been working on until he left (and on the bus and for two days after he got home). The paper was for his ideologies class and he said he’d been reading Mein Kampf on the bus and hoping no one thought he was a Nazi. He ate his pizza in the car and drank “this mysterious liquid,” a comment that made me hope he’s not drinking soda every day at school. When we got home, Beth and I went to bed while he did whatever it is college students do at night.

The next morning at 11:30, when Beth and I set out to get a Christmas tree, he was still in bed, though he answered the text Beth sent to say we were leaving. We drove to Butler’s Orchard, where we go berry picking in the summer. We’ve never gotten a tree there, maybe because it’s forty-five minutes away, but they had a much nicer selection than Christmas tree lots generally do four days before Christmas, so we may make it our go-to place. We browsed in the farm market, got some apple cider and garlic dip mix, and then picked out a tree. We found one we liked a lot—six feet tall and very full and bushy.

Our next stop was Wegman’s, where we intended to buy eggnog and mushroom ravioli for dinner and where we checked out with $55 worth of groceries. We don’t live near a Wegman’s so we succumbed to the temptation to splurge on several kinds of fake meat they don’t carry at the co-op, cranberry stilton, pomegranate kernels, and lunch at the deli. I got a slice of mushroom-truffle pizza and a pomegranate soda and it was very good.

North came home from Zoë’s in the late afternoon and we all had dinner around the same table, which was nice. Then we opened presents from my mom and Sara because there’s never room in the car for all the presents and it made a nice little solstice celebration. We capped it off with a viewing of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Sunday Noah emerged from his room shortly before eleven, and spent most of the day working on his paper. At dinner he said he was stuck, so I read his draft and gave him some ideas. We were all hoping he’d finish it that night, so he didn’t have to work at Blackwater. He’s already done that enough times. I told him he should have a college student’s break and not a high school student’s break. Meanwhile I did three loads of laundry (a lot of which was his) and swam and packed.

Monday and Tuesday: Blackwater, Before Christmas

Hike: Pendleton Overlook and Pendleton Lake

Monday morning brought us the happy news that Noah had turned in his paper the previous night while the rest of us slept. It was three days late and shorter than it was supposed to be, but as I often used to tell him in high school (and middle school and elementary school), “Done is beautiful.” We packed up the car and hit the road for West Virginia around 10:15. There wasn’t much traffic and even with a stop for lunch, we arrived at 2:30. We waited in the lodge for YaYa and when she arrived, we checked into our cabin.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and for dinner we had takeout from Panera—vegetable soup, bread, and mac-n-cheese that YaYa had picked up on the road. Then we watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. We’d saved all our Christmas specials except those we’d watched over Thanksgiving break until Noah was home again (at his request), so we had a lot. During the song, “First Toymaker to the King,” both kids sang along with brio. They knew every word.

On the morning of our first full day at Blackwater, North and I took the first of many walks while Beth and YaYa went grocery shopping. North took me to a path they’d found another year we’d stayed in a cabin nearby. It goes to a rocky outcropping with a view of the river canyon, dense with evergreens. It’s similar to the other overlooks, but smaller, more private, and without a protective railing. It was a little scary watching them stand closer than I would to the edge, but I stopped myself from saying anything because they weren’t really that close. Next we proceeded to an official overlook and North put a quarter into the swiveling binoculars to better view the lodge across the canyon and the narrow waterfall going down the canyon side. Then we took a path to Pendleton Lake, which was almost completely frozen, despite the current mild temperatures. North slid on the ice near the edge of the lake, and I watched from the earthen dam between the lake and the creek that empties out of it. There were some interesting ice formations on the creek side, near the culvert where the water comes out of the dam.

Back at the house, we decorated the tree with our ornaments and YaYa’s, too. It was like decorating a tree always is, with everyone exclaiming over ornaments that remind us of years, or decades past, and getting all nostalgic in a Christmassy way over them.

After lunch, the kids and I made gingerbread from the dough I’d made at home and transported with us. This is another nostalgic activity as the recipe is my mom’s and I’ve been making it first with my sister and mother and then with my kids since I was old enough to handle dough. We go different directions with the decorations from year to year, though. This year we used dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and hard candy. I discovered pepitas make good eyes and a cashew is just the right shape for a smile. North made a very satisfactory turtle shell out of green hard candies that melted into an approximation of a diamondback pattern. And as we always do, we made initial cookies for everyone. YaYa got two, an A for her real name and a Y.

Next North and I went swimming and hot-tubbing at the lodge. The hot tub was more of a tepid tub, but it was still relaxing. There was no one else there and the tub was big enough for me to float on my back.

Before our dinner of chili and corn bread (cooked by Beth), we watched A Miracle on 34th Street and afterward we watched The Year Without a Santa Claus. It was nice to watch something we don’t watch every year (the former) and something we do (the latter).  In between viewings, the kids opened a pair of new Christmas pajamas each, green and white stripes with a red collar for Noah and red and white stripes with a green collar for North. (I feel lucky that at thirteen and eighteen they still go along with this.) Just before bed, Noah treated us to a very dramatic reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and YaYa said he really should take an acting class in college someday.

Wednesday: Christmas Day 

Hike: Lindy Point

Christmas morning, as we woke singly and in pairs, we emptied our stockings of oranges, candied nuts, and other treats. Everyone was up by eight and we ate the lemon-cranberry muffins North had made for breakfast and then opened presents. A great many books, mugs, packages of tea, socks, and bars of soap were exchanged. Noah’s big present was an Apple watch. He was pleased with it and over the course of the next several days kept using it to check the temperature, note his movement goals, or dictate texts. He said it made him feel like Dick Tracy, though further questioning revealed he wasn’t actually sure who Dick Tracy was. North’s big presents were a papasan chair (which was actually at home because it was too big to bring with us, but we gave them a photo of it) and a weighted blanket, which they immediately and happily threw over themselves. “I will never need another blanket,” they said. YaYa especially liked the calendar Beth made of pictures of the kids, but what grandmother wouldn’t?

Around noon everyone but North left for a hike to Lindy Point. The day was lovely, sunny and cool but not cold—Noah and I didn’t even wear jackets. It was in the fifties most days we were there, actually, and there was not much snow, just the patchy remains of a past snowfall on the ground when we arrived, and that was all but gone when we left. Everyone was a little disappointed not to have a white Christmas, but the upside was pleasant temperatures for hiking and we did take walks every day. The year before had been snowy but bitter cold, which limited our outdoor time.

The trail to the overlook was narrow and lined with towering rhododendrons. It took us to a wooden platform on a rock outcropping that affords more views of the river canyon. Noah gave all his womenfolk a scare edging around the outside of railing to get photos from the angle he wanted. YaYa couldn’t watch. But he didn’t plummet down into the canyon, and we went home and had lunch and started one of the book he got for Christmas, American War. It’s set in the future during the second American Civil War and the plague years afterward. Then I read one of my Christmas books, Stephen King’s latest, The Institute.

Christmas dinner was YaYa’s signature spinach lasagna—she and Beth cooked every dinner we didn’t have takeout or eat out and that was a nice treat for me, as the primary cook in my family. We intended to watch Christmas is Here Again after dinner, but the internet was spotty in the cabin and it wouldn’t download, so we watched It’s a Wonderful Life instead because it was already downloaded and it was a more than adequate substitute. We haven’t been doing nightly poems since Noah left for college, but we are making an exception for Winter Poems, a book we’ve been reading read every winter for many years. We read the first five poems that night, including this one by Rachel Field I’ve always liked, which begins:

Something told the wild geese
            It was time to go
Though the fields lay golden
            Something whispered,– “Snow.”

And ends…

Something told the wild geese
            It was time to fly,–
Summer sun was on their wings
            Winter in their cry

 And then Christmas was over.

Thursday to Saturday: Blackwater, After Christmas

Hikes: Pendleton Overlook and Pendleton Lake (new route), Blackwater Falls

The day after Christmas I did three loads of laundry in the cabin’s tiny washing machine. Noah and I read some more of American War and I read some more of The Institute. Everyone but Noah had lunch at the White Grass Café and the kids went sledding on artificial snow in 56-degree weather while the mothers and grandmother watched from the bottom of the hill. They each went down four times. One the second run, they shared a sled to see if they’d go faster that way, but they concluded, in Noah’s words, that it was easier to steer, “when there’s one consciousness,” so they went back to separate sleds after that.

After sledding, Noah and I went back to the cabin and everyone else went to browse in the shops of  Davis, a nearby town. When they came home, we all did our own thing in the house for a while until Noah and YaYa went for a walk in the sunset before our dinner, which was a vegetable-white bean-quinoa soup. Christmas is Here Again had successfully downloaded so we watched our final Christmas movie.

Friday we went to the lodge for a late breakfast and from there Beth, North, and I proceeded to the pool, while Noah hung out in the lounge with his laptop editing the many pictures he’d taken so far on our trip and YaYa went back and forth from the pool deck to the lounge. I’d forgotten my goggles so I did backstroke for a half hour. I would have swum longer but it gets boring doing just one kind of stroke, so I went over to the hot tub, slipped on the steps, and fell into it. Luckily, I wasn’t really hurt, but it did give me a little scare.

Later Noah and YaYa retraced the steps of their walk from the day before because Noah wanted better light for pictures and for the rest of the afternoon some people read and some people watched Solo, and some did both and North did neither because they were having a long phone conversation with Jade in their room, as they did many days of the trip. (The two have become quite close recently.)

In the late afternoon I took a walk along the cross-country ski trail that runs behind the cabins. The grass was wet and muddy and I fell, soaking the knees of my jeans twice in quick succession, but I discovered a new route to the lake, which was still mostly frozen and quite scenic in the dusk. I was near the Nature Center and behind it I discovered two little skulls, one white and one green, wrapped in shrouds and mounted on sticks. I wasn’t sure if they were leftover Halloween decorations someone failed to remove. Or perhaps they were the ghosts of Christmas future.

When I got back to the cabin, Noah, Beth, and YaYa had finished watching Solo, and Noah was dragging the denuded Christmas tree back to the woods behind the house. We set out for a pizza place nearby, but there was a forty-minute wait so we went back to the park and had dinner in the lodge restaurant where we had breakfast.

There was a reading at the lodge by Ann Pancake, a West Virginian writer, starting shortly after we finished dinner, so we stayed for that, or the oldest three of us did, while the teens stayed in the lobby playing games on their phones. Pancake read three autobiographical essays, one about her childhood, one about visiting home as an adult, and one about her father’s dementia. I haven’t been to a reading in a long while, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy them.

Saturday morning we packed up the house, checked out, and went for our last hike of the trip, down to Blackwater Falls, the majestic waterfall that gives the park its name. You descend down a wooden staircase with several viewing platforms along the way. As we progressed, we tried to remember which was the platform where North lost a croc over the edge when they were very little and which was the one where Noah and YaYa sat on a bench and played his West Virginia-opoly game, a board game he made in fifth grade. (All the properties are places in West Virginia and he and YaYa were trying to play it in all of those locations, mostly during his summer visits to her. I don’t know if they ever completed this quest.)

About halfway down, North (who had twisted an ankle a couple days earlier), Noah (who’d slipped on the wet boards, gone down and hurt his leg), and YaYa (who’d been hesitant about the hike to start with) all decided to stay where they were and view the falls from there. Beth and I went all the way to the bottom, where the boards were coated with slush and ice. There were big icicles hanging from the lower rockface as well and the boulders in the river below the falls were all encased in ice. It all looked impressively wintry given that daytime temperatures had been in the fifties for at least several days.

Around eleven we said our goodbyes to YaYa in the parking lot and drove back to Maryland. Noah will be home for another three weeks, and Beth and North go back to work and school on Thursday. I have to work starting today, but I’m planning to meet an out-of-town friend for coffee this afternoon, attend the neighbors’ annual New Year’s Eve party tomorrow, and go for another hike, this one along the Underground Railroad trail with Beth and Noah, on New Year’s Day, so there’s still a little time for celebration left.

Eat, Shop, Sing

Wednesday

It was surprisingly easy to get to Rehoboth on the busiest travel day of the year. We’ve always driven on Thanksgiving to avoid the traffic, transporting our mostly cooked-at-home dinner with us. But this year we were planning to leave the beach on Saturday afternoon rather than Sunday, so Noah could catch his bus from D.C. to Ithaca on Sunday morning, so we pushed up our arrival by a day.

North had an early dismissal and got home at 12:50. We were on our way about an hour later. It took four hours to get there, even with a snack stop at the Taco Bell and Dairy Queen near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. That’s about how long it would take on a summer Saturday, and now as then, the main backup was before the bridge.

When we got to the house, we initially couldn’t find the key box and then Noah found it in a flowerpot, disassembled and empty. This was puzzling, but we continued to poke around the porch and the side of the house. Shortly after Beth had called and texted the owner, Noah looked under the doormat and found a key there, so we could finally get in the house. We’ve stayed at this one before, three out of the five Thanksgivings we’ve spent in Rehoboth, actually. It’s a cozy, early twentieth-century, two-story house with a roomy kitchen, a fireplace, and a big clawfoot tub.

After getting settled, North and I took a quick walk down to the beach. I was surprised to be able to see so many stars because it had been cloudy the whole ride, but it must have cleared after the sun went down because the sky was sprinkled with pinpricks of light.

There were some off-leash dogs on the beach, too, and this was a problem because North is afraid of dogs. At least we could see where they were because their people had put lights on their collars. Eventually, the people put the dog that was running around in circles and wouldn’t stay with them on its leash and North was able to relax.

We walked back to the house and drove to Grandpa Mac’s for dinner. I got mac and cheese with broccoli, celery, and mushrooms. It’s what I always get, though I do vary the vegetables. From there we went to the grocery store and got necessities like milk, and some not so necessary items from the bakery. Back at the house we split into pairs and Beth and North watched Modern Family while Noah and I watched Orphan Black for the first time in over three months. It was a flashback episode (or maybe all of season 4 is a flashback) taking place shortly before the first episode of season 1 started. The plot of this show is very complicated, so it’s hard to say if looping back in time made it easier or harder to follow, but it was fun and I’m looking forward to picking up the thread over Noah’s winter break.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving morning we woke to find North had set out breakfast for everyone, with cereal for me and Noah and a muffin for Beth and juice for everyone. (Noah came down late so only his place was left and he didn’t realize it was his and he poured himself another bowl of cereal– but when North told him, he agreeably ate the original one, too.)

Meanwhile, North and I took a walk to the beach, boardwalk, and around town. A pool of water had gotten stranded on the sand, and North, remembering how they used to like to play in these temporary pools, said, “This would be great if it was summer and you had a small kid, but it’s not summer and you don’t have any small kids left.”

We found a small crab on its back, weakly waving two of its legs. I wasn’t sure if its habitat was in a burrow under the sand or in the water, so I picked it up, intending to turn it right side up and leave it near the waterline. I got pinched for my trouble and dropped it, but I can’t blame it for assuming I was a predator. I didn’t pick it back up, though.

On the boardwalk, we saw a big inflatable turkey wearing a pilgrim hat and North declined to be photographed with it. “I’m good,” they said, both times I asked. We went into town to see if anywhere that sold hot chocolate or coffee was open. Most places were closed, but we did find what we were looking for eventually at Dunkin’ Donuts and a German-themed coffeeshop staffed by a very talkative and enthusiastic French man. I’ve never frequented it, but it was busy, presumably because not much was open.

We returned home and North wanted to start on the turkey centerpieces we always make out of apples, toothpicks, raisins, cranberries, and green olives. We’d failed to bring enough toothpicks, so we had to improvise. First we tried uncooked angel hair pasta we found in the cabinets, but it was fragile and prone to breakage. Then, when it had been successfully stuck into the apple and threaded with dried fruit, the moisture of the apple would soften the part inside and the rest would snap off under its own weight. When Noah made his turkey later in the day, he used wooden skewers instead of toothpicks for legs, giving his turkey a freakish, mutant appearance. Someone said it was a turkey that had evolved for the post-climate change apocalypse. We eventually got all four of the turkeys constructed/repaired at the same time and quickly took a picture before they fell apart again.

After everyone ate lunch, Noah and I went to his room to read Little Brother for an hour or so and then we came downstairs and did some Thanksgiving k.p. We trimmed Brussels sprouts and then he kept me company while I prepared the brandied sweet potatoes. When we’d finished, Beth and North were watching Modern Family again. I invited Noah to take a walk on the beach and he said yes.

We walked a long time, with the wind to our backs, which is sometimes a mistake, but it was so pleasant on the beach—cool but not cold, with pretty autumnal mid-afternoon light—that I didn’t want to stop. Eventually we turned around and the sand was blowing in our faces, so we had to walk back through town. I always find it sad to walk parallel to the beach and not on the beach or boardwalk. We went by Silver Lake and saw a heron in flight over it, though, so that was nice.

When we got home I put the Brussels sprouts in the oven and tidied up the kitchen for Beth and North who were going to start the cranberry sauce and the mushroom gravy soon. When they were done with those dishes, they put the tofurkey roast in the oven and North split off to listen to an audiobook while Beth started boiling potatoes for mashed potatoes. While things were cooking, we all watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Mayflower Voyagers. Before we ate, we volunteered what we were thankful for, being together mostly, but also for Noah being happy with his college choice, and for my new job. Then, after our Thanksgiving feast, we watched a couple episodes of Blackish while eating pumpkin and apple pie and then I took a bubble bath in the big tub.

Black Friday 

North and I woke up before Beth and Noah and they wanted a bagel, so we took a walk down the boardwalk to Dave and Skippy’s to get one. On our return, we all drove to Egg, for a more substantial breakfast—I had a hankering for the pumpkin-pecan French toast and Noah wanted the lemon crepes he always gets. There was a wait, so we visited a table across the street where local boosters were giving away hot chocolate, mini muffins, candy canes, and coupons for local businesses. Then we took a walk by the canal and went back to the restaurant. It was ten minutes before the hostess had told us to return, but she’d given away our table. I understood, she had a lot of people waiting. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for another one.

After breakfast we split up—Noah with me and North with Beth—and we started our Christmas shopping. Or we tried to split up, but we all went to BrowseAbout Books first, where we carefully avoided each other lest we see someone buying our Christmas presents. Afterward Noah and I visited the Christmas shop and Candy Kitchen. We ran into Beth and North near there and North wanted to switch parents, so we did. We perused the tea and spice shop, made our own visit to the Christmas shop, and finally to the crystal shop. Between these three stores, North bought presents for most of the friends on their gift list and finished up their family shopping, too—all before lunch. They do this almost every year. They’re a shopping machine. I didn’t make as much progress on my list, but I bought a few things. It was good to get the ball rolling, especially with Thanksgiving late this year. Christmas is closer than it feels.

North and I had a late lunch at Greene Turtle. The food was okay; the service poor. None of this was a surprise. I keep going back because it’s on the second floor of a building on the boardwalk and the view is stunning. Beth and Noah won’t set foot in there, being more picky about food and service and less picky about a panoramic seascape, so they went out for Italian instead. Afterward, they met us on the beach where we had our annual Christmas card photo shoot. (I’ve included a couple of the runners-up here.)

That was fun, but we were a little preoccupied because Beth had just received the news that Noah’s bus from D.C. to Ithaca on Sunday morning was “very likely” to be cancelled because of a winter storm due to hit Ithaca and much of upstate New York and New England on Sunday. Back at the house, she investigated flights, but all the routes were circuitous, prohibitively expensive, or both. The closest train goes to Syracuse and that last bit of the trip could be challenging in a storm. So we decided to cut our beach weekend and Noah’s stay with us a little short and drive him up to Ithaca on Saturday morning, so he could arrive before the storm, then turn around and drive as far away as we could before checking into a hotel for the night.

No one liked this plan. We all had things we wanted to do Saturday morning and early afternoon in Rehoboth—more shopping, more beach time, some relaxing at the house—but that would have to be scotched. And North was supposed to sleep over at Jade’s house on Saturday night after we returned to Takoma. But it seemed like the least worst option.

With this settled, I set about doing a load of laundry so everyone would have enough underwear for an unexpected night on the road and organizing and packing up a little. I was sad that Noah and I probably wouldn’t get to read any more of our book in the rush of our abbreviated stay, so Beth kindly said she’d finish the last of the Thanksgiving dinner dishes I’d left to soak in the sink the night before so I could go up to Noah’s room and read a little before we left for the holiday sing-along and tree lighting on Rehoboth Avenue.  (We read two chapters and ended up with four unread that we’d have to finish separately.) We got in the car and made a pit stop at Starbucks for hot chocolate, then I took North to Candy Kitchen, because they hadn’t been there yet, and Beth went to place an order for two pizzas at Grotto, which we’d pick up after the sing-along and take home.

North was upset about missing their sleepover with Jade, but the sing-along seemed to cheer them up. We ended up in a part of the crowd where not many people were singing but we all sang and Noah was cracking North up by dramatically humming the parts where he didn’t know the words and then very loudly singing the ones he did. During “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” I quietly sang “and a happy new Presidency” instead of “and a happy new year” to Beth and she nodded enthusiastically.

Back at the house, Beth made a fire and we ate pizza and watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas. I noticed something I haven’t before, which is that the Grinch starts with the Whos singing around a tree and that’s how Charlie Brown ends and it’s also what we’d just done ourselves. I guess there’s something powerful about singing outside in a group.

Saturday

In the morning we got up early, ate breakfast, and packed up the house. The kids and I went down to the ocean and put our feet in the water—theirs were bare, I wore boots—to say goodbye to it. In the car afterward, Noah said, “I can’t feel my feet.”

“Neither can I,” North said.

“You usually can’t feel my feet,” he observed and North half-laughed, half-groaned.

About seven and a half hours later, at five p.m., we carried Noah’s things up to his monkishly austere third-floor dorm room and said goodbye to him, not lingering so we could drive our way out of the storm’s reach. It seemed too soon, but I reminded myself again, Christmas is sooner than it feels.

Hershey Park in the Dark

Friday 

Friday evening as we approached our hotel in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, I started sending Noah a series of texts:

We just crossed the PA border

20 miles

15 

6

Traffic

We’re further than I thought

Counting down to the wrong city

3

Siri says 5 minutes

We can see the hotel

Can you guess if I was excited to see him? Ithaca had a four-day fall break (Thursday to Sunday) right after midterms and we decided to meet up and go to Hersheypark in the Dark.* What is Hershey Park in the Dark? It’s a Halloween celebration that takes place the last two weekends of October and the first weekend of November. There are decorations, they play Halloween music everywhere, kids twelve and under in costume can collect candy at various stations through the park, and some of the coasters have their lights turned off either after nine p.m. or all day for the Laff Track, which is an indoor coaster. We visit an amusement park most summers (either Hershey Park or Cedar Point in Ohio) but we didn’t manage it this summer and Hershey is in between Takoma and Ithaca, so it seemed like a good plan.

Noah took a shuttle from campus to downtown Ithaca on Friday morning, caught a bus from Ithaca to Scranton and then another one from Scranton to Harrisburg, managing the tight transfer like a pro and arriving in Harrisburg hours before we did because we couldn’t leave until North got home from school on Friday afternoon. So he got a late lunch and took a Lyft to the hotel. We were hoping he’d finish his homework on Thursday before he travelled, or while waiting for us, but when we got to the hotel we found him in the lobby working on a paper about 4chan for his Emerging Media class on his laptop. Beth had called ahead of time to authorize him to check in but when she did it the hotel staff failed to mention you have to be twenty-one to check into a room.

After a flurry of hugs, we settled into the room and presented him with a care package with so many items that we’d bought him a new duffel bag to carry it all back to school. There were Halloween cookies from the batch we’d made the weekend before, a string of ghost lights for his dorm room, batteries for the lights, a small pumpkin to put on his desk the way he used to every October at home, two pairs of fleece pajamas he’d left at home and wanted, a bottle of Fiji water (his favorite bottled water—yes he has one), and maybe some more things I’ve forgotten.

Once he’d received his tributes, we headed out to the park, where were going to have a late dinner and go on a few rides. We had to kill a little time because free evening admission on the evening prior to main day of your visit doesn’t start until seven-thirty. So we went to Chocolate World, which is a separate, free attraction, and took the factory ride. The kids are very fond of this ride, though they agree the song the cow statues sing is not as good as the one they used to sing when they were younger. Isn’t that how it always is?

We entered the park and got pizza and garlic knots. I had chocolate milk with mine because it was Hershey Park. We ate at an outside table and it just felt profoundly good and right to be eating a meal all together for the first time in over eight weeks.

When we finished we started walking through the park. There were autumnal touches—cornstalks, hay bales, and shellacked pumpkins everywhere, but I was surprised at the scarcity of Halloween-specific decorations. There were occasional light displays—a spider, a cat emerging from a jack-o-lantern—and a few real jack-o-lanterns, but not nearly as much as I expected. It was all G-rated, which is appropriate given how many small kids were in attendance. It was fun seeing kids in their costumes everywhere we went. The best costume was homemade, as the best ones always are. A preteen girl had made a cardboard roller coaster car with “sooper dooper looper” painted on the front and was walking around in it. There were also some people in group costumes—devil and angel, Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, etc.

The ride lines weren’t long, so we had time for several coasters and dessert before the park closed at ten. We all rode the Trailblazer, which is a mine ride and a family favorite, and the kids and I rode the sooper dooper looper (the only looping coaster I will ride—it has just one loop and isn’t insanely tall) and the Comet, the smallest of the park’s three wooden coasters. This was North’s first time on the Comet and they really liked it. It may be my favorite ride in the park. I love a classic wooden coaster, but the Comet is just about my speed. I have no desire to go on the bigger ones.

Noah always says the Comet is the scariest ride he does at Hershey Park, even though he goes on much bigger and twistier ones. It’s the way the wooden frame shakes a little. I agree with him that this makes it scarier than a similarly sized metal coaster, but it doesn’t make as much of a difference for me as it does for him. I think it’s because I took Noah on a wooden coaster that scared the pants off him at Cedar Point when he was twelve and he imprinted on it. So based on his (and my) description, North was always scared to try the Comet until they went on a wooden coaster at King’s Dominion on the chorus field trip last spring and found to their surprise, it wasn’t that bad. We all have our own limits.

We spent most of the rest of the evening walking around getting a chocolate-peanut butter funnel cake, a whoopie pie, and a soft pretzel. There was enough time to ride the carousel all together and then we went back to the hotel, happy and a little windburned from sailing together through the night sky.

Saturday

In the morning after breakfast North and I hit the hotel pool while Beth took Noah to a pharmacy to get a flu shot. (He didn’t get one the day they had them at school because he didn’t know what the hours were and missed it.) North and I stayed at the pool a long time, probably a couple hours. They showed me how to do some of their aqua therapy exercises and then I did sixty laps in the tiny pool while they splashed around. I think it’s possible aqua therapy may have helped North turn a corner with their leg pain because they are using the cane instead of the forearm crutches all the time now, and one day last week they went to school without either. So even though we’ve finished all the scheduled aqua therapy appointments, we try to get North to a pool once a week and they do the exercises on their own. (More good news: we found out yesterday a bone density scan came back normal.) After I finished my laps, I read a couple chapters of Orphan Train in one of the chaise lounges and then we went back up to the room to shower.

When we were dressed and Beth and Noah were back from the pharmacy, we all settled in to watch a DVD of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which we’d brought from home. At one point I glanced over to the other bed, where Noah had thrown an arm around North’s shoulder and they were cuddled up against him. I half wish I’d taken a picture of this and I’m half glad I didn’t make either of them self-conscious by doing it.

By the time we’d finished watching, it was lunch time so we started our day in the park with a meal again. We went to a food court where the kids got pasta and Beth and I got two cheese pies, two spinach pies, and a Greek salad to share. I got salad dressing on my shirt and the kids were amused by my attempts to wash out the stain by repeatedly pouring seltzer on myself while we waited for rides.

We did the Wild Mouse together, which Beth will ride because it has no big drops, just some hairpin turns and an unnerving lack of structure around the track. Then Beth and North got in line for the Laff Track, an indoor coaster I can’t go on because it goes backwards. I can’t even sit backwards on the Metro without getting sick. Noah and I took off in the direction of the Sidewinder. Noah read in some park promotional material that it was “for guests who want to spend more time upside down” and he wanted to add a new coaster to his repertoire. I just wanted to watch. There was a bench with a good view of two of the three loops and after watching a lot of cars go by, I finally spotted him going through each of them forward and then backward. That was fun.

The line at the Sidewinder was shorter than the Laff Track line so Noah and did the Wild Mouse again and even so, we had to wait a bit for Beth and North to emerge. North enjoyed riding it in total darkness, but Beth was very ill, so she swore off riding anything else for the rest of the day, and we all sat with her for a while. Eventually she was well enough to eat, so she and I split a pumpkin milkshake with chocolate-covered pretzel rods stuck in it and a slice a pumpkin roll on top, while the kids got more reasonably-sized frozen treats. The kids and I went on the swings and then we decided to take a break from the park so Noah could work on his paper and I could nap. I’d been up past my bedtime the night before and I knew it was likely we’d do it again and I am just not good with late nights. North didn’t want to leave the park, but they contented themselves with another swim while Beth rested in a chaise lounge poolside.

In the early evening we went to Hershey Gardens to see Pumpkin Glow, a display of over two hundred carved pumpkins. We’d never been so we didn’t realize how popular it was. There’s a long wait to park and then a long line to get in. It’s also kind of pricey. But it was worth it. It was magical walking along the winding paths of the botanical gardens in the dark (again with tons of cute kids in their Halloween costumes) encountering carved pumpkins at every turn. They’re done by students at a nearby community college and they were quite artistic. There were traditional Halloween designs, but also a lot of animals, and characters from kids’ movies and superhero movies. The first ones you see are in a little pond in front of the conservatory so their reflections double them. Most of these had aquatic designs—a starfish, a pirate ship, etc.

After Pumpkin Glow, we went back to Chocolate World, where we had a late dinner, and then back into the park. It was past eight, we’d done all the crucial rides, and the lines had gotten a lot longer than they were Friday night, so we checked the estimated wait times on the app and decided the sooper dooper looper had the highest return on investment. After that we rode the swings again and then headed back to Chocolate World for some candy shopping. It was past ten before we left for the hotel.

Sunday

North didn’t want to eat at the hotel breakfast bar both mornings, so after we checked out of the hotel, we went to a coffeehouse that had excellent pumpkin scones and where I spilled my mocha down the same shirt from the day before, adding chocolate stains to the grease stain. The kids thought this was pretty hilarious. I bought Noah some celery sticks with peanut butter because he didn’t bring any food with him on the way to Hershey and that’s a healthy snack I know he’ll eat. (I used to make it for him when he was too busy with schoolwork to leave his desk.) He was about to leave and I was feeling the need to mother him a little.

It was good to see Noah. He seems well, likes his classes, and reports having a little time to socialize, though less I think than at the beginning of the semester. His editing job at ICTV hasn’t started yet. They hired a bunch of people and he hasn’t had a turn. He’s thinking of taking a semester off to do an internship or volunteer for a campaign next fall, or maybe studying abroad in the fall of the his junior year, or possibly both because he has so many AP credits he could graduate a year early but the structure of his program makes that difficult. Studying in Australia came up, much to everyone’s surprise. He’s thinking big.

Noah was departing from a mall parking lot north of Baltimore, so he rode with us most of the way home, trying to work on his paper in the car, and he had an early lunch of pasta at the mall before it was time to go out and wait for the bus. It was a chilly, rainy day so we waited in the car until the bus—charmingly called Chariots for Hire—pulled up. We said our goodbyes, hugged him, and pulled out of the lot. I successfully resisted the urge to look back at the bus and reminded myself Thanksgiving break is less than five weeks away.


*This is the only time I will spell the name of the park this ridiculous way in this blog post, but I feel obliged to admit this is how they spell it, apparently since 1971, if Wikipedia is to be believed. But this was one of the amusement parks of my youth and I honestly didn’t remember it being spelled that way. Clearly, I have feelings about it. If you’re from Pennsylvania and you can remember how it was spelled in the 1970s and 80s, please let me know in the comments.

A Weekend in the Woods

Friday

At physical therapy, the therapist made a startling suggestion. “Why don’t we go outside?” she said. Apparently, there’s a garden behind the rehabilitation hospital where North has aqua therapy and regular physical therapy. There are picnic tables there and some people were eating there on that warm late September afternoon, but it’s also used for therapy. There’s an asphalt path, some stairs, and a small grassy square. So North walked forwards, backwards, sideways, up and downhill, up and down stairs, and across the grass (while tossing a ball back and forth with the therapist to test their balance). I walked alongside the two of them for most of the session to observe but also because I’d had such a busy day I’d skipped my customary weekday morning walk. It was very cheering to see them do all this without crutches or a cane, somehow more cheering than watching them do similar exercises in the big PT gym. I guess it looked more like real life and it made it easier to imagine North making their way through life without any sticks at their side. Although, as North observed, walking sideways downhill is not exactly a “skill for everyday life.”

We grabbed two iced chais and some chips at the hospital “coffeeshop” (the espresso machine has been broken since we started going to physical therapy there in late August so I’m not sure it deserves the title) and met Beth outside. She was driving us home so we wouldn’t have to wend our way home on public transportation. We were about to leave on a church retreat to Catoctin Mountain Park. The Unitarian church Beth and North attend has been holding this retreat at this location for over forty years, but it was our first time going. (It’s North and Beth’s second fall at the church and last year North probably had play rehearsals that conflicted with the trip. And speaking of that, Highwood is “permanently closed” according to Google, though there’s been no official announcement to the actors and their parents.)

We drove home, packed, and hit the road around 6:20. There was a beautiful pink, purple, and orange sunset that seemed to go on and on, and with a stop for pizza, we arrived at the park around 8:45. There are multiple camps in the park and in fact, last November Beth and Noah camped at Misty Mount (without Unitarians) on their annual fall camping trip. The Unitarians camp at Greentop. If you’ve ever been to summer camp or to a national park built by the CCC during the 1930s, you have an idea what it looks like. There are rustic log cabins of various sizes, bathhouses, a dining hall made partially of stone with a high ceiling with wooden beams and a recreational hall with a stage. The two main halls are connected with a breezeway. There are also picnic tables, a fire pit, basketball courts, a baseball diamond, swings, and some facilities that are closed in the off-season, like a swimming pool and a horse stable and corral.

We signed in and got our cabin assignment. The cabin sleeps ten in two four-bunk rooms on either side and a two-bunk room in the middle. The bunks are built into the walls like window seats with mattresses about the thickness of yoga mats on them. We were in one wing, with another family in the other side and the middle left vacant. We unpacked and North and I headed to the bathhouse for showers. We had to figure out the system for flipping over laminated signs marking the showers as open to men only, women only, or temporarily private for the person or people showering there. We went with private. By ten we were all in bed, but I didn’t sleep much for the first half of the night because I’m sensitive to light and there were no blinds or curtains on the windows and a lamppost right outside our room.

Saturday

Around two, when I got up to go to the restroom, I surveyed the room and realized the empty bunk was in a darker corner than mine. So I stripped my bed, remade the other one and switched beds. I slept better after that.

The next morning we got name tags with our names and pronouns and there was a hearty breakfast served in the dining hall at eight o’ clock. I had spinach strata, hash browns, vegetarian sausage, watermelon, and coffee with a scoop of hot chocolate mix stirred into it. After the meal, when the retreat coordinator stood up on a chair and said she had some announcements, the following song, forgotten for decades, and last heard circa 1980 (the last time I was in a summer camp dining hall) popped unbidden into my mind:

Announcements! Announcements! Announcements!
What a horrible way to die! What a horrible way to die!
What a horribly way to be talked to death! What a horrible way to die!

We sang this every time a counselor made announcements at the Quaker sleep-away camp I attended the summers I was eleven and thirteen. Perhaps they still do.

During said announcements we were asked to applaud for the breakfast crew, which we used to do in the dining co-ops at Oberlin so there was all kinds of nostalgia. We also heard about the activities for the day, the first couple of which were a hike with a geologist to a waterfall and a yoga class. We decided to hike on our own so we could go at our own pace and we chose the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still trail.

The trail was flat and went along a small stream in the woods. It had informative Park Service signs about insect and fish life in the stream. Reading them made me wonder about the process of writing the signs, how many people had their hands on it, how revisions it underwent, many layers of bureaucracy were involved, how long it took. Let’s just say working on EPA reports has made me sensitive to questions like this. There were also signs about the history of illegal whiskey-making during Prohibition because back then there was a large distillery hidden in the woods, which was the scene of a raid that turned violent. The trail ends with a still, a real one from the era, but not one of the ones that were surely destroyed after the raid and not preserved for twenty-first-century hikers.

It was mostly green along the trail, but I noticed a sprinkling of red leaves here and there. It felt peaceful to be walking in the woods. We stopped at the gift shop on the way home and bought a book of spooky campfire stories for North. Back at the cabin Beth set up the hammock and we rested and read until lunch.

Lunch was various pastas with various sauces and salad. Afterward I took a sorely needed nap in the middle room of the cabin, which is the darkest room because it’s the only one with a door. It was so satisfactory, I decided I’d sleep there that night as well. Shortly after I woke up, Beth and North left for pumpkin carving, the first organized activity any of us took part in. I will carve no pumpkin before its time (which in my mind should be mid-October at the earliest) and Beth felt about the same, but she went along to keep North company. North’s pumpkin has the letters SCARY SZN (season) carved into it. When it got dark, the pumpkins were lit with tea lights.

I stayed behind and read in the hammock. I’ve been reading a book of French short stories for over a month (and it’s not even a very long book). Ever since Noah left and we haven’t been reading books together or reading poems at night, I’ve been reading a lot less. It also didn’t help that my book club postponed its September meeting until October. For context, Goodreads reports that this year, up to mid-August, I was reading books at a clip of about a book and a half a week, but in the past six weeks I haven’t finished even one. I miss it and I hope to get back into a reading groove. In the hour I was in the hammock, I read a story by Sartre and one by Camus, and I’m close to the end of the book now, so that’s a step in the right direction.

Around 4:20 I headed over to the dining hall because I had a 4:30 dinner prep shift. I got a little lost and arrived a few minutes late. Beth was already sautéing onions for an enchilada casserole and North was doing a babysitting shift. (I heard a scavenger hunt was involved.) The dinner crew made six big casseroles with various combinations of turkey and/or beans, and flour or corn tortillas and three big trays of salad. It was a bit disorganized at the beginning but we got ourselves sorted out into jobs and I spent an hour and fifteen minutes stirring onions and chopping scallions, cucumbers, and carrots. North was a server at the rice station, so Beth and I ate before them, then hung around chatting with people while we waited for North’s turn to eat.

Evening activities included Paper Bag Dramatics and a campfire. I’d never heard of the former and I was expecting a puppet show with puppets made from paper bags but it was something entirely different. Six teams of kids and adults were each given a bag of props and they had to write and perform a skit using all of them with only about fifteen minutes to prepare. Beth, North, and I all opted to be audience members.

The skits were fun. One of them solved the how-to-come-up-with-a-plot problem by making the skit about the process of brainstorming a skit. Another one was about a diverse group of people, including a fairy and several medical professionals trying to heal a sick baby. They all used different tools, which I thought was an elegant solution. The winning skit—there was voting at the end—was about a monster who tried to kidnap two children. It wasn’t my choice for overall best skit, but I thought it should have won for “best use of bag” because they managed to fit two small children in the bag that had contained their props. (It was a large canvas tote and not paper.) I think that honor went to the group that used theirs as a time machine. In that skit, people from the year 2050 come back to 2019 with the solutions to all our environmental and health care woes. The boy who played Donald Trump in that skit (a classmate of North’s) was nominated for “best portrayal of an inanimate object,” but the nomination was disallowed because Donald Trump is alive and the question of whether he’s animated in the sense of having a soul was cut short. (Possibly because it was not in the spirit of compassion and inclusivity.) The inanimate object prize went to the person who carried a lightbulb around the stage and ran over to hold it over the head of any character who was having an idea in the meta-skit. Also notable was “Animals at the Disco Restaurant” which had very little plot, mostly small children pretending to be animals, eating and dancing.

After the skits, we went to the campfire, but we only stayed long enough to make a S’more each and briefly listen to people singing and playing guitar and bongo drums. I was surprised North didn’t want to stay longer, but I guess they were worn out from hiking and chasing small children around.

Sunday

I slept much better in the darker room. After a breakfast of leftovers from the previous breakfast, we packed up our cabin and attended a short church service in recreation hall, which was mostly music and people sharing their favorite memories of the weekend. I noted with some amusement that the first person who shared, an elderly woman, said, “Watching the children play,” and the next one, a preteen girl, said, “Being a child playing,” and several people later, a middle-aged dad said knowing the camp was a safe enough environment to let his kids roam (in others words not having to watch his kids play). There’s the circle of life right there.

After church, we had some free time before lunch so we sat at the picnic tables outside the dining hall. Beth read The New Yorker, North watched something on their phone, and I wrote a big chunk of this. Lunch was leftovers again and then everyone pitched in to clean up the camp. We were assigned to the dining hall, so we carried stray belongings out to the lost and found, wiped off tables with soapy water, folded them up and carried them into the recreation hall so the floors could be mopped. Unused food was for sale out on the lawn, and we bought two chocolate bars, a jug of orange juice, a bottle of ranch dressing, a box of spaghetti, an orange, a pear, and a huge mostly full jar of garlic powder. We finished up around two, piled in the car and drove home. North had today off for Rosh Hashanah and they spent part of the afternoon hanging out with friends after aqua therapy, but Beth and I dove back into work after our little holiday in the woods.