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.

Party of Nine

We just returned from our traditional extended family beach week in Rehoboth on Friday afternoon. I haven’t gone back to check old blog posts, but this might have been our largest group ever with nine people in the beach house: my family of four, Beth’s mom, my mom, my sister Sara, her fiancé Dave, and their daughter Lily-Mei. We ranged in age from six to almost seventy-six and we were spread out over a big house with a little cottage on the property. We’ve had the house before, but never the cottage. All week people were telling me how perfect the setup was. YaYa had her own space and Sara and Dave had a room that adjoined Lily-Mei’s. It was just right for our group. Not to mention it was a half block from the beach. Here’s how we spent the week:

Friday 

“This is awesome! This is the dream of my life!” Lily-Mei exclaimed. She had just been informed it was ten o’clock. Being up that late is heady stuff when your bedtime is seven-thirty. What she didn’t know was that her body was still on West Coast time and her folks were intending to keep her up late all week in hopes she’d sleep later in the mornings.

With the arrival of my mother, Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei, our crew was complete. YaYa and Noah had returned from his two-week visit to Wheeling the previous day and we’d driven to Rehoboth, while the West Coast contingent had made brief visits to friends and relatives in the Philadelphia and Scranton areas before meeting us at the beach.  They hit bad traffic and by the time they arrived, North and I had already been wading at the beach, and the five of us had pizza at Grotto.

Lily-Mei’s exuberance could have been due to getting out of the car after being cooped up a long time or to seeing her cousins for the first time in two years, or just her big personality, but whatever the reason, soon she was joyfully and noisily tearing around the house, with North and Noah trailing her.

Saturday

The next day started earlier than I would have preferred, but not because of the smallest child in the house. The sun from an eastern window woke me before six. I tried to go back to sleep for a long time without success, but the good part was that North and I were on the beach before 8:30 and before most of the house was even awake. (The next night we hung a wool blanket over that window, and an eastern window in Noah’s room, which helped a little.) It was somewhat difficult for North to walk on the sandy path down to the beach with their crutches and they required help getting in and out of the water, but once they were in deep enough to be buoyant, they had no problems in the water. This was a relief because I wasn’t sure if they’d be able to swim this year, but they swam for hours most days. It may have helped that the water was very calm, with only very small waves.

We swam together for an hour and they stayed in the water another half hour, when we returned to the house so I could help menu plan and make a grocery list for Beth and Mom, who were going shopping later in the day. When we arrived, we were met by Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei, who were headed out to the beach. Lily-Mei was put out to have missed us there.

Once the swimmers and shoppers had left, I had some leftover pizza for lunch, and read the first chapter of The Bad Seed to both my kids. We’re experimenting with reading together for the first time in years, but it’s hard to find a good book for everyone. (We only managed two chapters during the whole week and none in the two days we’ve been home, so I’m not sure it’s working.) After Lily-Mei got back from the beach, North went to play with her and Noah and I switched over a book of Shirley Jackson short stories.

I tried to nap in the mid-afternoon, but couldn’t get to sleep. When I got up, Mom, Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei had gone to the beach, so North and I followed. It was a beautiful day, warm but not hot and not too humid. The water was still calm. We swam and sat on the beach in varying combinations and Dave and I got to chat and know each other a little better.

Mom went back to the house first and made dinner, tortellini with a tomato-sour cream sauce. After dinner, Sara, Dave, and the kids (including Noah) watched part of Cars. It was his favorite movie back in the day. In fact, he was kind of obsessed with it. They stopped the movie frequently to explain what was going on to Lily-Mei. When I asked him later if it held up, he said yes and he’s a film buff, so that’s saying something, but I suppose nostalgia played a role.

Meanwhile, Beth and YaYa walked to the boardwalk, where they got ice cream and saw dolphins. They returned about the same time the kids stopped watching the movie because the fireflies had come out and Lily-Mei wanted to chase them. Did you know they don’t have fireflies west of the Rockies? So this was a rare treat for Lily-Mei, who was remarkably good at catching them one-handed. But she didn’t always need to because sometimes they just landed on her hand. She was like a little insect whisperer. Noah shot a movie of Lily-Mei holding one on his phone in between catching a few of his own. We were all standing in the gravel driveway of the house, watching the glowing insects on the ground, in the air, high up in the branches of an evergreen, and temporarily in our hands and a glass jar. It was kind of magic.

While Lily-Mei was getting ready for bed, North and I walked down to the beach and looked at the stars.

Sunday 

When I got up (early again), Noah, North, and Lily-Mei were all in the kitchen. My kids were making breakfast to eat in front of Dr. Who, a Sunday morning tradition. I asked Lily-Mei if she’d eaten and she said no, so I made her a bowl of cereal and some vegetarian bacon. She ate half the cereal and a bite or two of the bacon and then parked herself and her stuffed bunny in front of the closed door behind which Noah and North had sequestered themselves. This was such a pitiful sight that once I’d finished my own omelet, I asked her if she had any books she’d like me to read to her. I read her a Thomas book and The Carrot Seed, books she found on a shelf. Sara got up and North emerged from the den just as we were finishing up, so they played zookeeper’s keys and Rat-Tat-Cat, a card game we’d brought from home because North really liked it when they were six, and then they played some pretend game involving leprechauns fending off encroaching bad guys.

Around eleven, Sara, Lily-Mei, North, and I went to the beach. We spent a couple hours, swimming, making sand castles, taking walks, and hanging out on our towels. Lily-Mei was pretty fearless in the water. Whenever she got knocked over, she just got right back up. And she wanted to swim far out in the ocean. In fact, at one point, North asked if she wanted to swim all the way to Portugal (the country directly across the ocean from Delaware) and Lily-Mei said yes, looking over her shoulder and saying, “Bye, Mama!”

After lunch, Beth, my kids, Dave, Lily-Mei and I set out on an expedition to Candy Kitchen and once we’d walked that far it seemed to make sense to just keep going to Funland, so Dave and I took North and Lily-Mei, while Beth and Noah peeled off to run errands and go back to the house. At Funland, North and Lily-Mei rode the teacups, the Freefall, and the Graviton (one of those horrible centrifuge rides), most of them multiple times.  Nothing was too scary, except the automatic flush toilets in the restroom. Next the kids and Dave played carnival games and Lily-Mei won a stuffed ladybug and Dave won a stuffed panda.

By the time we got home, it was time for me to start dinner, a lentil stew and salad. Beth was kind enough to do some k.p. for me while I was still at Funland. After dinner, the kids finished Cars. Then Mom and I took North and Lily-Mei on an evening walk to the beach, where we spied dolphins almost as soon as we arrived. It was sunset and the beach was awash in pink. The sky was pink, the water was pink, the wet sand was pink. When we got home, Mom read  part of the first chapter of Beezus and Ramona to Lily-Mei. I love those books so much—both from my own childhood and from reading them to my kids—that I found myself listening from the porch. I don’t have it memorized word for word, but I always knew what was going to happen next.  Later when Mom and Lily-Mei came out to the porch, and Lily-Mei discovered she had two new mosquito bites, she wailed, “I don’t like this world!” It can be a short distance from the dream of your life to not liking the world when you’re six.

Monday

My shoulders had gotten a little pink from being in the sun at midday the day before, so I got to the beach early and had some solo beach time in the morning, then came back around 10:20 to do laundry and read with Noah, while North played with Lily-Mei. Sara had engaged her for three mornings of babysitting (but of course they played with her at other times, too). Once North was off duty, I took my kids to Grandpa Mac’s for lunch.

In the mid-afternoon, Sara, Dave, Lily-Mei, North, and I headed down to the beach where we swam and made sand castles. Well, Sara and her family were the main builders, but North and I contributed a little dribble village outside the castle gates.

Before dinner, people worked on a puzzle of Arcadia National Park. Most people helped, but Dave and Noah were principal contributors and Lily-Mei found the last piece on the floor and fitted it in.  Then we had YaYa’s delicious spinach lasagna—a regular one and a gluten-free one. Next there was an expedition to the boardwalk for dessert. Between us all, we got ice cream, frozen custard, and gelati (a parfait of frozen custard and water ice—that’s Italian ice to you if you’re not from the Philadelphia area). North and I got the gelati and it melted so fast so we were both sticky and colorful messes by the time we were done.

Tuesday

North was sitting Lily-Mei again in the morning. I heard North ask what she wanted for breakfast and Lily-Mei said, “Candy!” When North said she couldn’t have candy for breakfast, she said, “But I know where it is.” After they ate something a little healthier than that, I took them both down to the beach, where there was more swimming and digging in the sand. At one point, a wave knocked Lily-Mei down and she said, “That was no problem at all!”

We came home and Mom and I went to a boardwalk restaurant for lunch. Then I read for a while with Noah before going back to the beach with Mom and North. Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei had gone back to Funland. They returned with five new stuffed animals (including a sloth she seemed quite taken with) and two decorative pillows. Mom came into the water to get her legs wet before she went back to her chair to read while North and I swam. But there were biting flies that day and she quickly retreated to the house. Once I was out of the water, I didn’t want to stay long either. The flies even got under the towel I used to wrap up my legs.

Dinner was Beth’s signature beach meal—gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with garlic-cilantro sauce, and fancy cheeses with bread and crackers. Sara says this meal alone is worth a flight from the West Coast.

After dinner, Beth, Sara, Dave, Lily-Mei, and I went for a bike ride along Gordon’s Pond Trail, which goes through a salt marsh and down to a cliff that overlooks the ocean. Beth often takes solo bike rides when we’re in Rehoboth and this is one of her routes. Sara’s walked or biked it a few time and as a bird-lover, she always enjoys it. This time we saw egrets and red-winged blackbirds and clouds of dragonflies hovering over our heads as we biked. I’ve never seen so many in one place. We stopped at a marsh overlook and at Herring Point, where we saw a large pod of dolphins hunting for their dinner. Sara was excited, having not seen dolphins yet on this trip, but Lily-Mei had seen some that morning on the beach and was not as impressed. (Also the flies were biting here, too, so she wanted to get moving again.)

As we biked, Sara told Lily-Mei how two years ago she’d been in a baby seat on Sara’s bike instead of pedaling on an attachment that turned Dave’s bike into a bicycle built for two, and how two years before that, when she was still in China, Sara had decided on her name while walking on this very trail.

We left Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei back at the house and continued into town, where we made a quick Whoopie pie run. We brought the dessert back home to share with YaYa and my kids, but Noah was asleep, having gone to bed early with a headache.

Wednesday 

He was recovered in the morning, which was good because Mom, Beth, my kids, Sara, Lily-Mei and I were going to have breakfast at Egg, at his request. From Noah’s point of view, eating out is the main point of a beach vacation. Mom and Sara were charmed by the farmhouse décor and we all enjoyed our meals. (Noah and I got crepes with lemon curd and blueberries.)

Next on the agenda was Jungle Jim’s. Everyone but the grandmothers and me went. I always say going to waterparks at the beach is against my religion. I used the time to catch up on writing this blog post at Café-a-Go-Go with an iced café con leche and then to go to BrowseAbout to get a book for Noah. We’d finished The Lottery and Other Stories the day before and I thought I should use the time I still had the bike to run errands. (I’d rented it for one day only because we were so close to the beach.)

Mom and I had lunch at the house. We were the only ones there because YaYa was having lunch with a friend who lives in the area and everyone else was still at the water park. Apparently, Jungle Jim’s was a big hit with Dave and Lily-Mei because they stayed after the rest of the party left, getting home shortly before dinner.  Mom and I went to the beach after lunch, hoping to avoid the biting flies by varying our arrival time. Sure enough, it was a very nice day, sunny with no flies and the sea continued to be very calm. This was the first day I was starting to get frustrated by the lack of waves, because swimming in big waves is such a joy to me. But I swam a couple times anyway and had a nice talk with Mom in between, sometimes standing in the water, and sometimes sitting on the sand.

We had to leave the beach around four because we had five o’clock reservations at a Japanese restaurant. It turns out when you call the same day for a party of nine, you are either going to eat pretty early or pretty late. But service was leisurely,  so the timing actually worked out well, as it was 6:15 before we had our entrees. It was a pleasant place to wait. We were seated on the roof, in our own gazebo, with curtains to draw against the sun. The tables were on wooden platforms over a series of interconnected koi ponds. We dined on seaweed salad, sushi, udon bowls, and seafood pasta. My kids introduced Lily-Mei to a kind of melon-flavored Japanese soda that comes in a bottle with a glass pearl suspended inside and when she got bored she had fun walking back and forth between our table and the downstairs hostess stand to fetch mints for various members of our party, one at a time.

After dinner we broke into groups, seeking candy from Candy Kitchen and ice cream. Noah, North, and I went to Funland where North and I went into the Haunted Mansion and both kids rode the Freefall and the Paratrooper. We only used up thirty of the seventy-six tickets we came with, mainly because the lines were so long, but North had more rides they wanted to go on, so I promised we could come back.

Back at the house, various people were watching the first night of Democratic debates—I decided to wait until the field was more winnowed— or listening to a live broadcast of the Accidental Tech Podcast, or reading Beezus and Ramona aloud to Lily-Mei, who had managed to stay on West Coast time (two years ago when Sara tried this it didn’t work). As a result, the youngest member of the party was often up later than North, Beth, and me.

Thursday 

It was our last full day in Rehoboth. I managed to get down to the beach by 8:45. I took a walk north and found a big sand sculpture someone had made in the shape of an animal with powerful back legs. The upper part of the body was worn away so it was hard to tell if it was a rabbit or a kangaroo. Then I swam. There were no real waves and it was looking like there wouldn’t be any on the trip. I was sad about this, but I made an effort to appreciate what I did have, a sunny day with pleasant air and water temperatures, instead of dwelling on what I didn’t have. That’s tricky sometimes, though, isn’t it? Almost as if the universe wanted to reward my efforts, I saw a pod of dolphins, including a baby dolphin swimming with its mama, which is something I’ve never seen before in all my years of going to the beach. It was jumping a little higher out of the water than its elders and occasionally wandering out of their straight path.

I returned to the house mid-morning to do laundry and read Noah’s new book—An Absolutely Remarkable Thing—until lunchtime. Nicola’s was next on Noah’s list of restaurants to visit because he wanted baked ziti. Dave, North, and I accompanied him. Afterward the kids and I went to Funland, where we used all but fourteen of the one hundred tickets I’d originally purchased and North checked every ride they wanted off their list. And they did it just in time to get down to the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel where they were going to high tea with YaYa. It’s a tradition for them. When North was younger it was a dress up occasion, but now they just go in whatever they’re wearing. From there, North went earring shopping with my mom. They were so booked they didn’t get to the beach that day.

While North was off with the grandmothers, I came home and napped, then went to the beach for an hour before dinner. As I walked down the sandy path, I heard someone say, “It’s so level. It’s like a pool” and it was. The light was really beautiful, though, making the yellow-green water underneath glow and the silvery-blue water on the surface gleam.  Every little ripple and swell was clearly delineated. It looked like the water in Moana. After my swim I lay on my towel. I had a book but I felt too tired to read, so I felt the warmth of the sun and listened to a harmonica someone was playing nearby, which reminds me—one time when North and I were at the beach early in the morning, there was a man walking up and down the beach playing bagpipes. You never know what will happen at the beach.

Sara and Dave made black bean quesadillas, corn on the cob, and kale salad for dinner. Afterward, my kids went down to the closed snack bar on the path to the beach for a photo shoot. They’d been thinking of making a music video on the beach like they did last year, but they didn’t get around to it in time, and North thought they could use some still photos in a video someday and they liked the retro metal Pepsi and cheeseburger signs and thought it would make a good backdrop. So Noah took some pictures of them around the snack bar and then the kids and I walked out to the beach and got our feet wet and climbed the mound of sand the lifeguards pile around their chairs during the day. Then while Noah had his camera and tripod out, we went home and assembled everyone for a group shot on the porch stairs. While we waited for him to set up the shot, North and Lily-Mei chased fireflies. (This never got old for Lily-Mei. I think she did it every night.)

Friday 

This was checkout day. After the last puzzle of the week was finished (at the very last minute) and the house was packed up and locked, and Beth, Noah, and YaYa were headed back to the realty to return the keys, the rest of us stood in the yard and talked for a while, prolonging our goodbyes. But finally, Mom, Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei piled into their car to drive back to Philadelphia where they’d visit friends again before flying out west. North and I walked down to the beach, got a half hour swim, and then met up with the rest of the East Coast contingent for lunch. There was a last trip to Candy Kitchen, a last few minutes on the beach to say goodbye to the ocean. North and I were still in our suits, so we dived in; Noah was dressed and was only going to get his feet wet, but he got most of his front wet. As we walked down the sidewalk away from the ocean and toward our car, parked on a distant side street, I glanced over my shoulder at the boardwalk and the dunes, feeling a bit like Lot’s wife. But I didn’t turn to a pillar of salt, and I kept walking.

Texts from Colombia: An Adventure

When North was in second grade, I told them we were going on an “adventure,” when we were actually just going on a walk. This was a holdover from when the kids were very small and I used to call any outing an adventure. North patiently explained to me that it’s only an adventure if it involves “climbing a tree or going to another country.” This became a family joke.

Well, North’s climbed a few trees since then, but until this month they hadn’t had the other kind of adventure. They returned from the seventh and eighth-grade Spanish immersion trip to Colombia on Monday evening. I wasn’t there, so I’m going to tell the story in North’s own words, though their texts, mostly to Beth. I check my texts less frequently, so Beth was the main conduit of information. Also, some of my text exchanges with North were in Spanish. I included a little of that as bonus content for those of you who can read Spanish. All texts are shared with North’s permission and they were at least as redacted as the Mueller report.

Note: All time stamps are U.S. Eastern time. It was an hour earlier in Bogotá.

4/5, 5:51 p.m.

North: On the plane
I get to be buddies with Zoë
But the customs line is sooo long
And I have to stand

4/6, 1:01 a.m.

North: IM IN COLOMBIA
I  met P and J [North’s host couple], very nice, I’m tired so I don’t completely remember our plans for this weekend, but they sound fun and we’ll be hanging out with Zoës family [North’s host family consisted of a school administrator and her husband. They had no kids, so they often socialized with Zoë’s host family, and at school, North and Zoë both shadowed Zoë’s student.]

4/6, 6:34 a.m.

Beth: You didn’t get much sleep

North: Nope
I think what she said were doing today is that we’re going to drive through a little town with lots of mountains and a lake, and then we’re having dinner with Zoës family

Beth: Sounds amazing!

North: Yeah and we’re making plans to spend most of Sunday with her family too, on Sunday we have a welcome dinner for our chaperones that I’m going to, and the students have welcome breakfast at the school on Monday

4/6, 2:11 p.m.

North: I ordered at a restaurant in Spanish
Oh yeah and I’ve been communication solely in Spanish for the past twelve hours
I am in pain because apparently public bathrooms aren’t a thing in Colombia

Beth: Sorry!

North: 2 hours later we got home and I used the bathroom
It was wonderful

Beth: Sorry you had to be uncomfortable for so long
Early to bed tonight?

North: Not right now we’re going out to dinner with zoë’s hosts

Beth: Have fun!

North: Were you expecting me to go to bed at 6:30?

Beth: No, but maybe by 9?

4/6, 10:32 p.m.

North: It’s always seemed normal to me, but I’m realizing now that the fact that I can speak 2 languages is really cool. Language is still such an abstract thing that we don’t quite understand, and the fact that some people can understand more than one is really spectacular if you think about it.
We’re still not home from dinner btw [North learned first-hand about the late hours people in Spanish-speaking countries often keep on this trip.]

4/7, 9:18 a.m.

North: We were walking around and my host brought me into a clothing store. I think it’s her way of saying, “your wardrobe is atrocious” [P quite generously bought North a lot of clothes on the trip.]

North: A guy stopped us on the street, tied strings around our wrists and told us how much Jesús  loves us (hint: he apparently loves us a lot)

4/9, 5:51 p.m

Me: Que hiciste hoy?

North: Fuimos al museo de oro, y el quinto de Bolívar 

Me: Divertiste? Usaste una silla de ruedas o caminaste?

North: Silla de ruedas porque temenos que caminar much, era muy divertido

4/9, 5:53 p.m.

North: I’m starting to see bits of freckles peeking out

Beth: Sunshine power!

4/10, 6:59 a.m.

North: I like this whole going to school for half an hour then getting on the bus with Zoe for two hours thing. It’s nice [The American students spent one whole day at the host school, but the rest of the days, they were mainly on field trips.]

Beth: It will be hard to go back to your regular routine

North: In the US, kinder eggs are illegal, here, it’s illegal for a minor to drink coffee

Beth: Interesting! How old do you have to be for coffee

North: 18

4/9, 6:37 p.m.

North: My knee has been getting more stiff and painful recently, it’s getting harder to do my exercises…We’ve mostly been using the wheelchairs on field trips because I don’t enjoy standing on one foot for hours on end

4/9, 9:08 p.m.

North: Zoë got me a kinder egg

Beth: Nice!

North: Cuz I wasn’t allowed to get the one I found at the store
I’ll be careful not to choke and die

4/11, 7:45 a.m.

North: Today we had papaya with Parmesan on top for breakfast
I did not like it
In the slightest
But I ate all of it
I wouldn’t recommend it

Beth: Good for you for eating it

4/11, 10:05 a.m.

North: Is putting sunscreen on your hands a thing? [The kids got a lot of warnings about using sunscreen because the sun is stronger at the high altitude of Bogotá.]

Beth: Yes

North: My hands never burn it’s weird

4/11, 3:32 p.m.

North: Guess what I got you?

Beth: Salt? [There was a field trip to a salt mine that day and Beth, who is a connoisseur of salt requested they bring some home]

North: You guessed it!

Beth: Thanks!

North: They had no small bags so

Beth: Wow that might put your luggage overweight!

4/11, 5:39 p.m.

North: The back of my neck is burned and my cheeks are redder than usual

Beth: They said that might happen! Lots of sun in the salt mine?

North: It seemed dark lol but outside of it yeah

North: Today they said something I was very annoyed about, the only after school activity available was robotics and they said, “but robotics is not for girls.” There is so much wrong that sentence and I would have proved them wrong and gone to robotics, but I don’t like robotics.

Beth: Computers were not for girls when I was in junior high. It’s terrible but people keep fighting for change and change happens

4/11, 8:38 p.m.

North: Tim Burton dumbo just came out here so we saw it
It’s literally the equivalent of 3 dollars each for tickets

Beth: Was Dumbo dubbed into Spanish

North: Yep
It was fairly easy to understand but the lips not matching the words was trippy

North: I’d love to go to this school. No yelling teachers, people are very causal and call their teachers by their first names and use informal conjugations, the food is amazing, and THE HALLWAYS ARE OUTSIDE

North: It’s past 9:00 and we still haven’t ordered
I’m never going to bed tonight

Beth: You are going to need a lot of rest when you get home

North: But I still have to get up at 6:30 the next morning to get to school
Well shoot, I just realized that the two adults coming home with me are drinking
Who will drive safely
Nobody [We don’t drink, so North’s not accustomed to seeing adults drinking and doesn’t really have much context for what’s safe, so they needed some reassurance.]

Beth: If they are having a glass of wine with dinner it will be OK
I am sure your teachers will make sure you are safe

4/12, 6:48 a.m.

North: It’s driving P crazy that she can’t coordinate my outfit cause we’re going to the wetlands today and I can only wear stuff that can get dirty

North: Oh no
I just looked
They put cheese on mango
You can’t mess up mango
But I just saw it happen

North: I have to somehow navigate wetlands on crutches today
It’s our community service

11:16 a.m.

North: Somebody decided that rather than having me organize a library with the eighth graders it would be a good idea to take me on a 2 hour hike

4/12, 7:03 p.m.

Me: Did you survive the hike?

North: Barely

Me: What kind of terrain?

North: Tall grass, it was wonderful for crutches

Me: And did you dance at the dance?

North: Nope

Me: What’s the plan for tomorrow?

North: Idk

Me: Well you can rest your leg Monday on the plane

Me: You’re visiting a colonial village according to P 

4/12, 9:15 p.m.

North: Did I mention that I spent $12 on the hate u give only for it to be available for free on the flights
I just realized I forgot to wear my retainer on this entire trip

Beth: You can start tonight!

Beth: Did you go on the mountain hike?

North: Nope [This was the only activity North skipped due being on crutches, on a very active trip.]

4/13, 6:06 p.m.

North: There are so many stray dogs here but they’re all so calm, they don’t bark and aren’t scary at all. I’m petting a dog [North is very afraid of almost all dogs. Finding a host family without a dog was one of the factors that delayed North getting matched with a family until almost before the trip started. Being vegetarian was another. It’s possible being non-binary was yet another, although North says they were perceived as a girl by almost everyone. They weren’t even sure if P and J knew, though the trip organizers from North’s school told us months ago that they were looking for a tolerant family so I assume they did.]

4/14, 8:42 a.m.

Beth: Sounds like the hotel was kind of a disaster… I mean adventure. Ms U sent out a message [After they left their host families, the Americans spent a couple more days in Colombia and stayed in two very different hotels]

North: There were fleas, exposed wires in the shower, and of course no WiFi and little service
But there was a cat

Beth: A stray or did it live at the hotel?

North: It was a stray but lives in the hotel where guests pet, feed it and let it into their rooms

4/14, 8:34 p.m.

North: This is like the size of a room you would get for all four of us and it’s just me and Zoë

4/15 1:05 p.m. 

Beth: Welcome back to the USA [North was going through customs in Atlanta]

North: I put the salt in my carry on.
They thought it was drugs

Beth: Did they confiscate it?
Is it weird to be back where most people are speaking English?

North: They just scanned it thoroughly and patted me down
It’s fine

4/15, 5:30 p.m.

North: About to take off. I have the entire row to myself

A few hours later, North came off the plane, tired but very happy. It’s been nice having everyone at home together for the past five days, but I’m glad they finally got to have the non-tree climbing kind of adventure, thanks to the hard work of the teachers and administrators of both schools and the generosity of their Colombian hosts. ¡Gracias a todos!

Suburban Maryland Wants to Be Western New York, Part 2

Late Friday morning, after just four days at home, Beth and I were pulling into the parking lot of Noah’s school to pick him up halfway through the school day, for our last college trip. We were going to Admitted Students Day at Ithaca College. I asked Beth if she would sometimes like to know if North will go to this high school so she knew exactly how nostalgic she should feel about the fact that Noah will be finished attending it in just over a month. She said no. Turns out that’s just me.

We rolled into Ithaca around dinner time. It’s a slightly shorter trip than Rochester and we didn’t have to make a detour to the airport this time. We found our AirBnB, which was in a neighborhood of stately old houses in eclectic architectural styles, many of them slightly shabby but cheerfully decorated with strings of lights or Japanese lanterns or Tibetan peace flags or colorful woven hammocks on the porches. The yards were dotted with flowers or yard signs supporting liberal causes, pretty much the same ones you’d see on a stroll through Takoma Park.

We walked a few blocks to a pizza place, where we got pizza, Stromboli, and garlic knots. While we were standing in line to order, there were some college kids behind us in line, talking about how they were meeting friends at ten, so there should be time to go to the gym after dinner and before that. It took me back to my younger days when plans could conceivably start at ten. Now if they end at ten, it feels like a late night. It made me hope when Noah’s up late a year from now, it’s not always because he’s working.

Noah wanted to watch a movie, so after some discussion we settled on A Serious Man and watched the first half before bed around ten, because though I might like to reminisce about late nights in college, I don’t actually want to relive them.

In the morning, we had breakfast at the AirBnB and headed over to the college. We registered and settled in at one of the tables set up in the middle of the stadium. There was a student activities and services fair going on around the perimeter. Beth went and collected some brochures and freebie pens while Noah set up his laptop and tried to get some work on his Chaucer PowerPoint presentation done. Like hobbits, we had a second breakfast of muffins and bagels. Eventually it was time to move to the folding chairs set up at the front of the stadium floor. A dance club performed and then some administrators spoke and then the admitted students left to go hear a panel discussion of current students while the parents stayed behind and heard more administrators and a student speak about Ithaca. Beth said she thought it was a good idea to split the kids off from their parents in case they had questions they didn’t want to ask in front of the their parents.

Indeed, Noah came back claiming they’d all been sworn to secrecy, but he did mention the current students gave tips about which dorms were quiet ones and which one were more party-oriented. (Meanwhile, the parents were listening to the administrators talk about how drug use isn’t endorsed anywhere despite the existence of a substance-free house. This discussion went on for quite some time, apparently because New York may be legalizing recreational marijuana soon.) Noah also had some restaurant recommendations and was informed there are so many hills on campus, the student all develop “Ithacalves.”

There was a buffet lunch set up in the stadium and the vegetarian options were much better than what we ate at RIT. There was cheese tortellini, baked tofu, salad, fresh fruit, and cupcakes.

After lunch, it was time for the academic presentations. We went to the Park School of Communications, where we started off watching video presentations and speeches by faculty and students. There are ten majors in the school—Noah was accepted to Emerging Media—but what struck me was how much interaction between them and flexibility within them there seems to be. This was something that concerned Noah at RIT. He thought the Motion Picture Sciences major seemed like it might be too narrow. There also seems to be a lot of institutional support and encouragement for undergraduates to attend conferences or get travel funds to film events or meet sources for documentaries.

Two of the students who spoke had oddly specific things in common with Noah. One had two moms and was making a documentary about meeting her donor and half-siblings. Another travelled to the Women’s March and filmed it with a 360-degree camera, which is also something Noah’s done (even with the same kind of camera) while assisting CWA’s videographer. It almost seemed like a sign. Of course, when the singers at RIT sang a song called, “It’s Your Puzzle,” that also seemed like a sign, because Noah’s Common App essay was about puzzles. And the RIT mascot is a tiger and when he was two, he loved to wear his tiger costume and insisted on being addressed as Mr. Tiger when he did so. (It was also the mascot of his first elementary school.) When you’re trying to see the future, signs are everywhere.

Next we had a chance to meet with the director of Emerging Media and two current students in the major. We had a surprisingly long and detailed talk with them. One of the students is a double major with Computer Science—Noah is very interested in the intersection between computing and film. Noah got some handouts outlining the requirements for the major and different tracks you can take within it and asked some questions about how his AP credit in calculus and computer science will count as coursework. The director asked what other schools Noah was considering and while he, of course, favored Ithaca, he said RIT was a good choice, too. He was somewhat dismissive of Boston University, which he said was more focused on graduate students and wouldn’t offer the same kind of opportunities for undergrads. It reminded me how at BU, the tour guides seemed to think highly of Ithaca, but not RIT. Everyone has a different opinion, but hearing a few of them can help a composite picture emerge.

Before we left campus, Noah posed by the display of Rod Serling’s Emmys, which are housed at Ithaca because Serling taught there. (Noah’s merit scholarship is named after Serling.) We could have gone on to see dorms and dining facilities, but we were all kind of tired, so we went back to the AirBnB, where Noah and I read the second act of A Doll’s House and then I napped while he worked on the Chaucer presentation until it was time to leave for dinner.

We ate at Moosewood when we visited Ithaca in August and Noah wanted to go again and I certainly had no objection. I had a samosa wrap, Beth got a vegetable soup and a cheese plate, and Noah had pasta with asparagus in a cream sauce. We stopped at an ice cream parlor on our way home and watched the rest of A Serious Man.

While not as unfortunate as the besieged protagonist of the film, Noah is a serious young man and not prone to quick decisions. He’s going to make a pros and cons chart over spring break, which started today. He’s behind in a couple classes and he worked on statistics all day today, but I hope he has a little space over the next few days to relax and to weigh his options.

Suburban Maryland Wants to Be Western New York, Part 1

It wants to have a family business in sheet metal or power tools, 
It wants to have a diner where the coffee tastes like diesel fuel, 
And it wants to find the glory of a town they say has hit the skids, 
And it wants to have a snow day that will turn its parents into kids, 
And it’s embarrassed, but it’s lusting after a SUNY student with mousy brown hair who is 
Taking out the compost, making coffee in long underwear.

From “Southern California Wants to Be Western New York,” by Dar Williams

The children persist in growing up. Late Friday morning we dropped North off at BWI airport to join thirty-six of their classmates in the Spanish immersion program who were embarking on an eleven-day trip to Bogotá. The trip takes place every other year—you go in seventh or eighth grade—and in the alternate years, the French immersion kids go on their own trip.

We’d hoped North would be off crutches by the time they left and the fracture is healed, but despite twice-weekly physical therapy, they still have pain when they put weight on that leg, so the crutches went to Colombia with them. That meant we needed to stay in the airport for an hour or so, until their suitcase was checked. Not that we were the only parents lingering. Apparently sending your twelve-to-fourteen year old off to a foreign country without you is a little unnerving. But the first couple days they were gone we received a steady stream of texts and pictures. It’s slowed down, but we’re still getting dispatches from them and we also got a nice email from their host mom, so we don’t have to wonder how they’re doing. They seem to be having a great time. More on North’s adventures in a later post.

After we tore ourselves away from our jetsetter and collected Noah from the bench where he was working on computer science homework on his laptop, the three remaining members of the family got lunch at Panera and then hit the open road. We were headed for an Admitted Students Day at RIT. (Next weekend we’ll be back to New York state again, for Ithaca’s version.)

We arrived at our hotel around 9:30,  after a long drizzly drive. As we drove north, I could see spring receding. The flowering trees disappeared and there was even a dusting of snow on the ground at the highest elevation, near the Pennsylvania/New York border. We had dinner at a brick oven pizza place about one hundred miles from Rochester. For much of the ride, Beth and listened to podcasts—Throughline, Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and Desert Island Discs while Noah disappeared into his headphones to listen to his own podcasts and watch television on his laptop.

In the morning we had breakfast at the hotel. The breakfast room was crowded with teenage boys in track suits, some kind of high school sports team from Montreal, we gathered. They were well behaved—which isn’t always the case for large groups of teens in hotels—but it made for tight quarters. There were also a couple teen boys with middle-aged parents I thought might be going where we were.

When we arrived at RIT, we were greeted by the pep band, wearing orange and white hockey jerseys, standing on the steps of the building where the event started, and playing a cheerful tune. I noticed there were a lot more young men than women streaming into the building. (We later learned from a tour guide the student body is 70 percent male.) When we took our seats in the stadium where there was a mostly female a cappella group performing. I joked to Beth they were there to convince all these young men that there are women at RIT.

There were some speeches by administrators and then we were split up by schools. We followed a student carrying a School of Film and Animation sign to the brand-new MAGIC Spell Studios building, which opened this fall. We started in an auditorium where the interim director and other faculty gave an overview of the different majors within the school. It was during this presentation we realized that co-ops (paid, full-time, semester or summer-long internships required by most majors) are not required in the School of Film and Animation. For me, the co-op opportunities had been one of RIT’s draws.

When it was time to tour the building, we went with the Motion Picture Sciences guide. This is the program Noah applied to. It’s an engineering-based program that covers the technical aspects of film. We saw studios for color correction, sound mixing, a big green screen (but not the biggest one they have) and a couple grip cages full of equipment. Noah said later it was a really impressive facility and he’d know.

Lunch was provided, but the vegetarian option was a sad, sparsely filled roasted vegetable sandwich that was mostly lettuce and peppers. It was similar to lunch at UMBC, actually. I wondered if they use the same catering service. There was fresh fruit and brownies, though, and I had smoked almonds in my bag, so I supplemented my lunch with those.

Next we took a residence hall tour. The guide showed us a standard dorm room and lounge. The most interesting feature of the tour was the network of tunnels that connect the dorms to each other and to the academic buildings. It’s a nice feature on a campus with harsh winters, but they’re in use all year. There are student-painted murals on the walls, some dating back to the nineties, but there’s still blank space you can request to paint. There are laundry rooms and mailrooms in the tunnels under each dorm, and even a convenience store. It’s a whole hidden, underground part of campus.

In Noah’s information packet there was a coupon for the Ben and Jerry’s in the student union, so we were forced to go get ice cream. After that, we went to Disability Services and learned how Noah can pick up his ADHD medication and to Spectrum Services to talk to two very nice administrators about what kind of support and social and organizational coaching they offer. For those of you who weren’t reading this blog back in the day, we had Noah tested for Asperger’s when he was nine. He didn’t quite meet the criteria, but the psychologist who tested him said he had a lot of the same characteristics and challenges kids on the spectrum have. And you don’t need an official diagnosis to use Spectrum services, so it’s nice to know there’s a built-in support network if he cares to take advantage of it.

That appointment was our last stop of the day so we went to the bookstore to use another coupon to buy A Handmaid’s Tale (because Noah and I are thinking of making it our next mother-and-son book club book and I’ve lost my copy) then back to the hotel room so Noah could research a paper about Chaucer for a few hours. But before he started to work, we debriefed a little. He was concerned that the Motion Picture Science major might be too technical and not creative enough. He’s interested in technology and skilled with it, but he is interested in the bigger picture of storytelling, too, so to speak. We talked about how he’s eligible to take other classes in the School of Film and Animation that might be more on the creative side, even if they’re not requirements. He seemed pensive and unsure. I think this is going to be a hard decision for him, but maybe the visit to Ithaca next weekend will put the schools side to side in a helpful way.

When Noah’s laptop ran out of power we went into Rochester proper for a late dinner at a Asian noodle restaurant. As we walked down a residential block where we parked the car, I noticed snowdrops and crocuses in people’s yards, underlining the fact that we’d driven into an earlier, more tentative phase of spring than we’re having at home, where there are daffodils everywhere and the cherry blossoms are past peak, and there’s a sprinkling of early tulips. (Rochester still had big piles of melting snow in parking lots.)

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was late, so I had a shower, Noah had a bath, and we all went to bed. In the morning, we ate breakfast and hit the road again. Beth and I listened to more podcasts, mostly Hit Parade, a music history podcast about—you guessed it—songs that have been in the Hit Parade over the decades. In an episode about songs that peaked at #2, there was a snippet of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” and Beth and I sang along with the line “My mama told me, you better shop around.”

It’s true, both Noah’s mamas advised him to shop around, but the time for that is almost over. There’s just one more college to visit and sometime in the next few weeks, he’ll make his choice.

Little Cabin in the Big Woods

Saturday: Arrival

We arrived at the cabin at Blackwater Falls State Park around five, after a drive that featured heavy traffic at the beginning and driving through snow on untreated roads with very little visibility at the end. YaYa was already there. She’d laid out crackers and cheese with a little container of honey mustard as a welcome. We snacked and rested a little between unpacking and setting up the Christmas tree that had made the journey from Maryland with us on top of our car.

This was our third Christmas in a row at Blackwater, but the first one (at least with the kids) in one of more rustic cabins that Beth and her family stayed in when she was a child and where Beth and I spent a Christmas with her family a couple years before Noah was born. The older cabins are a little smaller, wood-paneled, and quite charming.

YaYa wanted to hear the recording of Noah’s winter band concert, so we played the three Wind Ensemble’s three songs, while Noah pantomimed playing the different percussion instruments he’d played in the concert so she could hear which sounds he’d made.

North and I started dinner—grilled cheese and soup—and almost immediately North cut their finger badly on a soup lid. It looked deep and Beth and I were afraid we were going to be heading back out into the snow to drive to the nearest urgent care, which is forty-five minutes away in good weather. But ice, pressure, and elevation stopped the bleeding, so I resumed cooking and we ate dinner, watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and called it a night.

Sunday: Settling In

In the morning Beth strung the lights on the tree and we hung ornaments on it. We had brunch at the lodge, and browsed the gift shop, where YaYa bought me a Blackwater Falls State Park windbreaker as an early Christmas gift. Back at the cabin we collected sticks for kindling so we could have a fire later and the kids explored the teepee previous guests had left in the woods behind the cabin. Later I kept seeing these all through the park and I wondered if there had been a teepee making tutorial at the nature center recently.

Beth and YaYa went grocery shopping and the kids and I made gingerbread cookies with dough I’d made at home on Friday. I was using my mom’s gingerbread recipe, the same one I use every year. In fact, when I’d called her on Friday to thank her for the Christmas gifts we’d opened early to lighten our load in the car and to celebrate the solstice, she was in the thick of making gingerbread cookies with my five-year-old niece, Lily-Mei. They seemed to be having fun but also “’xasperating” each other in Lily-Mei’s words.

When Beth and YaYa got back from the grocery store, the gingerbread was done and the kids were watching an episode of Dr. Who. North then launched into a solo baking project, chocolate-peppermint cookies, while Beth and I took a short walk through the snowy woods to the top of the sled run. There wasn’t anyone sledding—it must have been between sessions—and there was a truck grooming the snow.

After we returned from our walk, YaYa got out the tinsel and she and North put the finishing touches on the tree, while YaYa reminisced about hanging tinsel on the Christmas trees of her youth and how her father insisted on all the tinsel being perfectly straight. North listened with interest and said they were glad YaYa was more relaxed about it. Then they sang a song from Peter and the Starcatcher at YaYa’s request.

People split up to read, commune with their electronic devices, and nap for the rest of the afternoon. The kids collaborated on dinner—fettucine with tomato sauce, broccoli, and Greek olives. The olive were among the treats my mom bought us on her travels in Greece this fall. When the kids started cooking I wondered why I’d never given them joint responsibility for a meal before. Then they started squabbling about whether the water was boiling sufficiently to add the pasta and whether it was “naughty” to sample more pasta than strictly necessary to test for doneness… and then I remembered. But they did put a decent meal on the table, with no adult help, so perhaps we’ll try it again someday.

After the dinner dishes were done, we watched Christmas is Here Again, which was longer than I remembered so North was up late, but Beth reminded me, “It’s vacation,” and so it was.

Monday: Christmas Eve

It snowed overnight and in the morning there was seven to eight inches accumulated on the picnic table behind the house and our bedroom window was fringed with icicles. The longest one was probably eighteen inches long.  There were even bigger ones out the kitchen window. I asked Beth what she wanted to do that day and she said she hoped to read, make a pot of black bean soup, work on a puzzle with Noah, and not leave the house except maybe to take a walk. That sounded pretty good to me, though North opined “that doesn’t sound very exciting.” I think that was the point, actually.

And that’s basically how the day went. Beth didn’t leave the house, even to go for a walk, though North and I took a walk down the park road to the end of the cabins. Beth made soup, which simmered in the crock pot for most of the day, and she worked on the puzzle with Noah. It was a jumble of different images of Santa Claus. Beth, Noah, and YaYa watched The Last Jedi. I finished a Joni Mitchell biography I’ve been reading since October and listened to David Sedaris’s “The Santaland Diaries.” We had the NORAD Santa tracker (muted) on the television screen most of the day. Every now and then someone would glance at it and comment on Santa’s location and the number of gifts delivered. In the evening we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns.

After that, North wanted to open one present each. This is a tradition Beth had growing up and I didn’t. North likes it and Noah doesn’t, so we made it opt-in. I decided to sit it out with Noah as I’d already opened my gifts from my mom on the solstice and then I’d received the jacket from YaYa early, too. YaYa opened a calendar Beth made with pictures of the kids (always a popular grandmother gift). Beth opened a fleece jacket and North got a t-shirt that said, “Stay Bold.”

It was a nice, low-key day, except for the fact that the cat sitter called to tell us the heat was out at our house and Beth had to make and receive a lot of calls, as she tried to coordinate a time when the cat sitter could let the heating company technician into the house. And then the tech called the house phone instead of Beth’s cell or the sitter’s to say he was coming, so of course he was locked out and he left. When he came back he needed a part and left without fixing the furnace. The sitter set up a space heater in our bedroom, the cats’ favorite hangout spot. It wasn’t too cold outside, mostly in the forties, and the house has thick walls and holds its heat for a couple days, which is good because the heat was still out when we got home three days later, despite Beth’s persistent efforts to convince the oil company to send someone to the house.

Tuesday: Christmas Day

By eight a.m., everyone was awake and ready to open presents. Most of us had already opened our stockings. A great many gifts were exchanged while we ate clementines, nuts, and candy and Noah took pictures. Noah got camera equipment, including a new lens and a camera bag. North got a certificate to get their hair dyed and a weighted throw blanket with cats on it. Everyone got at least several of these things: books, socks and other clothes, tea, mugs, soap, scented candles, Amazon gift cards, and tiles.

I knew this ahead of time because I saw it unfold during our Christmas shopping trip to Rehoboth, but Beth and North got each other the same pair of fuzzy blue socks because when North was showing them to Beth to gauge if she liked them, Beth thought North was dropping hints that they wanted them. Not exactly a “Gift of the Magi” situation because nobody sold their feet to buy the socks, but still a bit of Yuletide irony.

North made breakfast, a skillet pancake with lemon curd and homemade cranberry syrup. But before we ate Noah wanted to try out his TARDIS mug. When you fill it with warm liquid, the image of the TARDIS fades from one side and appears on the other. It’s a pretty cool effect. One of Noah’s other gifts was Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to Six of Crows, which we’d just finished on Christmas Eve, in a serendipitous bit of timing. So we read the first two chapters of that.

When we’d finished, Beth and I hiked the Balanced Rock trail. The trail was covered with snow, but well-marked with orange blazes. We had to step carefully because you couldn’t tell what was under the snow. It could be rock, a spongy layer of wet leaves, mud, or an inch of ice covering another inch of water. It was a lovely walk, though, with evergreen boughs and rhododendron leaves covered in snow. We had the trail nearly to ourselves—there were no footprints other than ours, except near a place where the trail crossed another trail—and just once, I glimpsed another person ahead of us on the trail. We had to scramble and crawl at the end when it got steep near the two boulders, one atop the other, that give the trail its name. When we got up there it was so quiet we could actually hear the snow creaking as it shifted on branches and showered to the ground. That was the only sound, other than the occasional cawing of a crow.

Beth and I had leftover black bean soup for lunch with crackers, cheese, and olives, and the cranberry sauce that was the byproduct of the syrup North made. Beth, North, and YaYa went swimming at the lodge after lunch. I would have gone, too, but I’d forgotten to pack my suit. I was sorry to miss it because the pool is in a room with big windows and I enjoy being in the pool or hot tub, looking out at the snow.

But having the afternoon free in the cabin meant I could read Elevation, one of my Christmas presents, in one sitting (it’s only 146 pages and they are small pages) and make a batch of peanut butter-chocolate kiss cookies. They were just going in the oven when the swimmers came home. Beth made a fire and I relaxed in front of it while YaYa made her signature spinach lasagna for Christmas dinner. After dinner, we all watched a Dr. Who Christmas special from a few years back.

Wednesday: Boxing Day

The next day was our last full day at Blackwater and there were a lot of things we hadn’t done yet that people wanted to do. In the late morning we went to the sled run and the adults watched the kids sled. North had neglected to bring their waterproof gloves (purchased last year at the sled run gift shop/snack bar) or any gloves at all, so the adults all lent them our cotton or fleece gloves in turn, each pair getting soaked as they used their hands to brake. After three runs, they were out of gloves, so they quit. Noah did a fourth run and then the session was closed. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the snow was sparkly, and there was a bonfire going at the foot of the hill (behind a barrier so no one can sled into it).

From the sled run we drove to the White Grass Café where we had lunch. On the drive there and back the kids were alternating songs from North’s favorite musical, Dear Evan Hansen, and Noah’s, Hamilton, while North expounded on plot and characterization in Dear Evan Hansen for YaYa, who hadn’t heard of it. We dropped YaYa off at the cabin and then the four of us were going to hike down to see Blackwater Falls, but halfway down the series of stairs and platforms, they were closed due to packed snow and ice. Beth was disappointed because the falls are special to her, especially in winter when they’re partially frozen. We could still see them, but we weren’t right up next to them. It looked like there was just a little ice on the falls, with water pouring around it. We drove to the other side of the canyon to take a different trail that affords another, more distant, but less obstructed view, and took some pictures. Watching the falls made me think about the last waterfalls we visited, in Ithaca, and wondered if we’ll be making regular visits to any of them in the next several years.

North would have liked to go to the pool again but the roads were slushy and Beth was afraid they’d ice up as afternoon temperatures fell, so we settled into the cabin to read and work on the puzzle, which Beth and Noah finished. This turned my mind to college, too, because Noah wrote his main Common App essay on puzzles, how he likes to do real ones, and also enjoys the puzzle-like aspects of film editing and computer programming. I was glad to see writing and re-writing that essay several times has not ruined puzzles for him.

Noah’s also become more interested in still photography lately and he’d taken a lot of pictures on this trip. Using his laptop to project them on the television screen, he showed them to YaYa so she could pick the ones she wanted. Then he set up her new tiles on her purse, phone, and wallet.

Beth made one last fire, we had a supper of leftovers, and set to work taking decorations off the tree and packing. We had a discussion about whether to rent a modern or rustic cabin next year. Beth voted for rustic, because they remind her of her childhood, the kids voted for modern, I abstained because I prefer the look of the old cabins, but I missed having a washer/dryer. YaYa cast the deciding vote for modern because it’s more convenient to have two bathrooms.

Thursday: Departure

In the morning, there was the usual end-of-vacation scramble to clean out the fridge and pack the car. Actually, more than the usual scramble. We are still discovering things we may have left there—a thermos of Beth’s, a shirt of Noah’s, an almost full box of Greek pastries and candy. But we were on the road by ten thirty and home by three. When we got home we found the house cool but habitable. It really hadn’t been that cold outside and with the space heater going our bedroom was sixty-two degrees, with the other rooms maybe ten degrees cooler.

Sorting through the mail we found many Christmas cards and another merit scholarship offer, (from UMBC) and a somewhat disappointing statement from Ithaca about Noah’s total aid package there. We went out for Chinese food, after having decided we’d rather eat in a heated restaurant than have take-out in our unheated dining room. After dinner, Beth dropped us off at the house and went to the hardware store for another space heater to put in North’s room that night.

Friday and Saturday: Home

Over the past couple days Beth succeeded in getting someone to come fix the furnace and ran errands, I did an endless stream of laundry (five loads so far) and blogged. Noah applied to RIT—his last application—and did some homework, but only for an hour on Friday and a few hours on Saturday. One nice thing about our vacation was that Noah didn’t have to work at all while we were gone. North met up with a friend from Peter and the Starcatcher Saturday morning and in the afternoon we went to see Mary Poppins Returns and then went out for tapas. We’ve got few more days to ease into our normal routine, and while there’s an orthodontist appointment, a visit to the MVA, and a mammogram on the agenda on Monday, I hope we’ll find time for fun as well.