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.

Four Road Trips and a Bus Ride

Beth spent a lot of time in August driving. In fact, over the last three weeks of August (and the first day of September) she was on the road a total of ten days. We took four road trips, in various combinations, but as the sole driver, she was the common denominator on all of them.

Road Trip #1

A little over three weeks ago, Beth and I took North to camp. This was a day trip, as the camp is only three hours away, in South-Central Pennsylvania. We needed to feed North lunch before drop-off so we went to the same pizza place where we’d had lunch the year before. North actually remembered the name, Paradise by the Slice, which aided us in finding it. It has a subtle tropical theme in its décor and pretty good pierogies in addition to pizza. I think I may sense a tradition forming.

Road Trips #2-3

The second and longest trip, just over two weeks ago, was to fetch North from camp and drop Noah off at college, and if you read my last post, you know all about that. The third trip, a week and half ago, was to Wheeling. Beth took North to her mom’s house for the traditional week of one-on-one grandmother time the kids call Camp YaYa and then drove back the next day. (Noah attended his session of Camp YaYa in June, right after graduation.) While at YaYa’s, North swam and did leg exercises in the condo pool nearly every day, went shopping for school clothes, went to the movies, gave a reading about fracking at YaYa’s church, attended a performance of bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens songs at the library, ate out a lot, and made banana bread.

Home Alone

While North was gone, Beth and were alone for five days, which is the longest we’ve ever been alone since Noah was born. In fact, I think I can count the kid-free weekend get-aways we’ve had on one hand. I’ve always been a little jealous of parents we know who manage to send their kids to sleep-away camp or the grandparents’ house at the same time. So I’m sorry to report we didn’t really use the five days well. It was all work days and AT&T was on strike so Beth was working some evenings, sometimes long after I’d gone to bed. We did go out to dinner the first night, at the (relatively) new Mexican place in Takoma Park, Cielo Rojo. I’d only been there once before and I like it so that was nice. And then I made four adult-friendly dinners in a row, kind of a luxury. Beth’s favorite was zucchini-eggplant sandwiches with queso blanco. (She’s a big fan of eggplant, and up until this summer neither of the kids liked it. Noah’s the convert. North’s the holdout.)

On Thursday morning I went out to get the newspaper and I was startled to see a crowd at the middle school bus stop, then I remembered it was sixth-grade orientation. I found it slightly amusing how many parents stayed until the bus came, being the jaded middle school parent I am now. It made me think how school was just around the corner, though. I honestly hadn’t been thinking much about it, and I’m usually counting down the days.

Road Trip #4

The Friday before Labor Day Beth came home early and we hit the road around 2:45 for Wheeling. The traffic was awful and getting out of the D.C. metro area took forever. It was around 10:15 when we finally pulled into YaYa’s condominium parking lot— the drive usually takes five to six hours. We did stop for dinner in Cumberland, at a restaurant in a converted mansion that once served as a joint Union-Confederate hospital during the Civil War. There’s dining on at least three levels and the back stairways and narrow halls that connect dining rooms, kitchens, and restrooms are a crazy warren. We were eating in the brick-lined “pizza cellar.” We eschewed the chance to have pickles or penne on our pizza, going for the more staid mushrooms and spinach instead. We got the fried eggplant appetizer, as well, because we’d only had eggplant twice in the week before.

When we got to YaYa’s she was out at a season preview event at a community theater, but North was still up and making chamomile tea. (North had attended the event, too, but Beth’s aunt Carole brought them home because YaYa had volunteered to help clean up afterward.) I was tired—I haven’t been sleeping well recently—and went straight to bed, but Beth and North waited up for YaYa.

Saturday morning we went to Target to buy school supplies and some more clothes and had lunch out at a restaurant where you can get French fries inside your sandwich. Not having grown up with this delicacy, I didn’t see the appeal, but Beth did so she indulged. That’s how it is sometimes with food. We went to Oglebay Park pool in the afternoon and then up to the lodge gift shop where YaYa bought some t-shirts for Beth. We had Mexican for dinner and while we were out, Carole texted she’d left something on the porch for us.  She and YaYa had spent the morning (and in Carole’s case the day) at a Labor symposium and there was a sheet cake with the faces of labor leaders in the frosting. She brought us a big slice of it with Walter Reuther (fourth President of the UAW and civil rights activist, born in Wheeling) pictured on it. Beth was really tickled by this. Carole came over and we had cake with sliced up Klondike bars and then we watched the beginning of Fantastic Mr. Fox. (YaYa moved recently from one condominium to another and now she lives two doors down from Carole. I think they are enjoying being neighbors.)

Sunday morning we went to YaYa and Carole’s church. It’s a small Unitarian church right over the West Virginia-Ohio border. They’re between ministers right now, so services are member-led. It was Carole’s turn. The service was Labor Day-themed and YaYa gave a talk about women in the labor movement and there was a discussion about it afterward.

After church, Beth helped her mom with some technical and mechanical issues around the house and North collected some water from YaYa’s pool in a bottle to bring to church next week. (They’re having a water service in which everyone brings water from a special place.) We left for home a little after two, and had much better luck with traffic. Even with a stop for dinner at a shopping center sushi place, we were home by eight-thirty.

Home Together

We had a relaxing day at home on Labor Day, the last day before the new school year. Beth and North went grocery shopping and Beth worked on some home repairs and rested while listening to podcasts. I read the newspaper and wrote this and took a walk with North. As we approached the bridge over Long Branch creek, I asked North if there was anything they were looking forward to in the new school year, because they’ve been pretty negative about it. North guessed (correctly) that I was trying to get something positive out of them and if they didn’t come up with something I would. “So, fine, seeing my friends,” they said grudgingly. I decided to leave it at that. I remember eighth grade well enough to know it’s often no picnic.

But we did have a picnic that night because we do it every Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day— I made veggie dogs, baked beans, corn on the cob, macaroni salad, potato salad, and watermelon. We ate it on the porch because it rained in the late afternoon and our patio chairs were wet. Afterward we went out for frozen yogurt, another last-night-of-summer-break tradition. As we were eating our frozen treats, another family was leaving and the dad said, “Another summer in the books.” And it was.

Bus Ride

The next morning North made themselves a smoothie for breakfast and packed a lunch in their new bento box. (They’re always enthusiastic about breakfast and lunch preparation at the beginning of the school year.) They posed for the traditional first-day-of-school at the front gate and five minutes later they were at the bus stop, waiting for the bus for the first time as an eighth grader.

At 3:20 they were home and moderately cheerful. They have Zoë in two classes and the two of them are on the same lunch shift after having no classes together last year. North also got into art, which was their first-choice elective. They had a little bit of homework (of the introduce-yourself-to-the-teacher variety) in two classes, but nothing taxing.

Most years I’m chomping at the bit for the school year to start, or a little melancholy about summer ending, or most often a mix of the two. But my usual impatience has to do with having a quiet house to work in, and North was gone so much of August that I wasn’t as eager for it as I usually am. And all the family traditions, the picnic, the ice cream, the picture at the gate seem a little wrong without Noah here, but at the same time, they also seem right. I think that’s how tradition works, stitching us together and easing us through the transitions.

August and Everything After

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

Sunday: Camp and Cousins 

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

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

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

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

Monday: Lake Cayuga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: On Our Way Back Home

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

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

After

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

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