The Sweetest Place

We’re taking two road trips this month. We got back from the short one—a weekend getaway to visit Hershey Park and drop North off at sleepaway camp—on Sunday. Next Sunday we’ll be picking North up at camp and dropping them off at Beth’s mom’s house for a week-long visit while Beth, Noah, and I tour colleges in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York.

Before Hershey Park

The week before the Hershey Park trip both kids were home. This is the hardest kind of week for me during the summer, but not because it’s impossible to work with the kids at home. It’s not. They don’t interrupt me as often as they did when they were younger. It’s more I interrupt myself to make sure they’re doing chores, or summer homework, or reading, or doing anything vaguely creative or wholesome instead of staring at screens all day long, which is what they really want to do. So it’s hard to get into a good workflow because I am constantly monitoring them.

Still when mid-August approaches, I often start to feel nostalgic for the summer that’s not even over yet and I don’t mind working with two twelve-year-old kids playing Battleship on the living room rug right behind my desk and one seventeen year old playing drums in the basement, as I did one day last week when North had their friend Edwin over.

Tuesday afternoon when I didn’t have much work both kids and I tried to take a creek walk, but a thunderstorm scotched the plan before we’d been in the water for five minutes. So we came home and I tried to get one or both of them to make a peach-blackberry cobbler with me, but neither of them felt like baking that day. Noah did think to inquire if there would still be cobbler to eat if they didn’t help or if it was “a Little Red Hen situation.” It wasn’t. I made the cobbler and let them eat it.

I also tried to spend some one-on-one time with North, as they were about to be away from home for two weeks. We played a couple games of Clue and watched Alexa and Katie together on Wednesday. Thursday we cooked together—they made brownies for brownie sundaes while I was making veggie burgers and sautéed green beans with pine nuts for dinner. 

Hershey Park 

Saturday morning we left the house a little after eight and drove to Hershey Park. It’s only two hours away so we got there fifteen minutes after the park opened. Even so it was already crowded. We usually go on weekdays to beat the crowds but I guess there’s no beating the crowds on a Saturday in August. (Although, I have to say it didn’t seem to get any more crowded over the course of the day, so it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be when we first got there.)

As soon as we arrived, we went to the measuring station because North wanted to see if they were a Twizzler yet. They didn’t actually want to go on any rides you need to be that tall for, but it was the principle of the thing. Most of their friends are already Jolly Ranchers. And yes, they are a Twizzler now.

We split up immediately so both kids could get to the their top-priority rides early in the day. For North, that’s the Laff Track, an indoor coaster with a funhouse theme. I won’t ride that one because it goes backward and I can’t even sit backwards on Metro trains without getting sick. So Beth stayed with North and Noah and I went to the Comet, an old-fashioned wooden coaster that’s probably my favorite ride in the park. Noah likes it, too.

Over the course of the day we hit all our favorites. We all rode the Coal Cracker (a log flume), the Trailblazer (a mine ride), the Wild Mouse, a little coaster with a lot of sharp turns but no big drops and the Sky View, a tram I like because it gives you a good view of some of the more daring coasters I will never ride. One of those is the Great Bear, which Noah really likes and rode earlier in the day. It’s a twisty hanging coaster with multiple loops. The only looping coaster I’ll ride is the Sooper Dooper Looper, which has just one relatively small loop near the beginning of the ride. The kids and I always do that one. I even have a t-shirt that says, “I Survived the Sooper Dooper Looper.”

After lunch, the kids wanted to sample one of the more bizarre sweets you can get in the park—BBLz, which are concoctions made of made of different flavors of soda with frosting on top and candy in it. Beth and I got ice cream instead. I got a Reese’s sundae and she got an ice cream cookie sandwich. While we were eating our treats, Beth told me about an article she’d read recently about how Hershey recruited dairy workers to violently break strikes at their factories in the 1930s. At the time we were seated in front of a wall that said, “The Sweetest Place on Earth,” so that seemed a little ironic. (Somehow this got omitted from the detailed Hershey timeline we saw the next day at Chocolate World.)

Late in the afternoon, Noah needed a break, so he went to sit somewhere air-conditioned and listen to podcasts. The rest of us headed to the water park. It wasn’t a particularly hot day but it was muggy and we were all pretty wiped out, so the wave pool and the lazy river seemed more appealing than the water slides. The river was very pleasant and relaxing—we went around twice.

By the time we left the water park and reunited with Noah it was starting to get dark so we rode the Ferris Wheel and watched the lights come on all over the nearby rides. Then we headed to Chocolate World and had a very late dinner. The original plan was to do some shopping in the candy store and take the factory tour ride, but it was already nine-thirty and the adults were done in, so we decided to return in the morning. I was too tired to even get dessert.

At our hotel we slept and woke and had breakfast and Beth and North visited the pool before going back to Chocolate World for the delayed shopping trip and factory ride. By the time we’d finished there, it was time to drive North to camp.

Camp Highlight

Last fall, shortly after coming out as non-binary, North started asking if they could go to a camp for trans and non-binary kids this summer. The one they had in mind was in New Hampshire, which posed a transportation challenge. Also, at the time, Beth and I were still kind of reeling from North’s disclosure and we weren’t entirely sure they would still be identifying as non-binary this summer. After doing a little research, Beth found a camp for kids of LGBT+ parents within easy driving distance in Pennsylvania. We figured it was a pretty sure bet that North being from a lesbian-headed family wasn’t going to change and the camp seemed welcoming to gender non-conforming kids. It has gender-neutral cabins, which was very attractive to North, who was uncomfortable with the gendered sleeping quarters at Outdoor Education last fall, a problem which would presumably extend to most sleep-away camps.

We arrived at the camp, which uses a YMCA facility, in the early afternoon. It was a lot bigger than the Girl Scout camp North attended the last three summers, and fancier, too. I saw a horse corral and a big climbing wall. Beth said she had seen the climbing wall but not horse-riding on the list of activities, though, so the horses might be for another camp. (Several different camps use the facilities at once.)

The counselors were outgoing and apparently excited to meet all the new campers and greet returning ones. That’s another difference from North’s old camp. They loved it, but because it ran one-week sessions for most of the summer, it wasn’t the kind of place where returning campers would see many of the kids who were in their session the year before. And the counselors were mostly different from year to year, too. This camp is small—just about sixty campers—and only meets for one week a year, so it seemed a lot of kids and counselors knew each other. It made me think it could be a comfortable place for North to return for the next few years, if they like it. I hope they do.

After we signed in, we bought North a water bottle with the camp logo, and headed to their cabin. It was high-ceilinged, with partitions between the bunks, so there was some privacy for the ten or twelve kids bunking there. We left soon afterward. North seemed happy and not nearly as nervous as the first time we left them at sleepaway camp when they were nine. They’re a pro at this now, I guess, and it seemed like a good place for them, full of friendly, outgoing people.

Still, I’m looking forward to picking them up in five days and hearing about all their camp adventures as we drive them to their next sweet place of grandmotherly spoiling, while Beth, Noah, and I set out on a journey that may lead us to find a sweet place for him.

The Whole Sand Castle

Day 1: Saturday 

“This was a nice way to start the holiday. Tacos and ice cream. We’re really kicking back,” Beth’s aunt Carole said. We were at the Dairy Queen near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, after having lunch at Taco Bell. Noah, YaYa, and Carole had flown to D.C. from Pittsburgh the night before and we were all driving to Rehoboth Beach, where we were spending the second week of the kids’ summer break.

Noah spent the first week in Wheeling with YaYa, swimming in the pool at Carole’s condo, attending a showing of Charlie Chaplin films and watching movies at home. North spent it at home with me. They didn’t have camp, so they lazed in the hammock and played the ukulele, practiced dance moves from My Fair Lady in the yard, and binge-watched Fuller House while I worked. Three evenings they had My Fair Lady rehearsals. They are playing Jamie, one of Eliza’s father’s drinking buddies. I gave them a chore every day but we also had an outing almost every day—to the Long Branch pool, to the farmers’ market to get pupusas for lunch, out to lunch with family friends Becky (North’s old music teacher) and Eleanor (Becky’s daughter and North’s old babysitter), and to visit Lesely, their old preschool teacher, who was at school because she’s running at half-day camp at the school and it had just finished for the day. I felt like I managed a pretty good mix of work and fun for both of us, though exercise and reading for pleasure kind of fell by the wayside for me, except for the day we went to the pool, when I did both.

We arrived at the beach house a little after four. After we unpacked, Beth went to get groceries and I took a quick walk down to the beach and got my feet wet. When I got back to the house, my mom had arrived from Philadelphia where she’d spent a couple days visiting with friends on her way from Oregon and our party was complete.

We socialized and Beth made dinner—ravioli and salad—then after we ate we listened to North sing an original song, plus one from Dear Evan Hansen, plus “Hallelujah,” while accompanying themselves on the ukulele. Beth and Noah drifted to the porch where they started the 1,000-piece puzzle (a village scene) they would work on for most of the week, (along with YaYa and Carole).

Meanwhile the seniors played a Broadway-themed board game North got for their birthday from Megan. It was then I learned all three of them know the words to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, because suddenly they were all singing it with North, while Mom danced around the living room. (The game requires you to do things like this.)

Day 2: Sunday

North and I didn’t go down to the beach until noon because I was reading with Noah, chatting with various relatives, and helping Beth make a grocery list. This often happens on the first day—the morning is busy and I just can’t wait until mid-afternoon when the sun is less strong. But we were restrained and didn’t stay long, just an hour and fifteen minutes. We were in the water most of the time, with a brief break to sit on our towels to eat cherries and a plum and re-apply sunblock.

After a late lunch at the house, Mom and I went back to the beach for a short walk, then we set out on a series of errands, one of which was to rent a bike for me, but I failed in that because Mom dropped me off at the bike shop at 5:02 and they’d closed at 5:00. Gazing sadly through the window at the employee inside did not yield results, so I texted Mom and she picked me up.

When I returned to the house Noah and North seemed to be engaging in some preparatory work for music video North wanted to film at the beach. I thought I heard them approach and then back away from an argument on the following topic: Should Noah add instrumental tracks beyond North singing and playing the ukulele? (Noah pro, North con.) I was pleased at their restraint and civility because while they’ve collaborated on several films, the process is sometimes messy and fraught.

Mom and I made dinner—veggie burgers and dogs, really excellent corn on the cob we got at a farm stand on the drive down, and a tomato and mozzarella salad with basil I brought from the garden at home.

After dinner Noah asked if we had any dessert in the house and we didn’t, so everyone walked down to the board walk (about a half hour away) and got ice cream, frozen custard, and water ice. That last one was mine and I was happy to be close enough to Philadelphia to call this treat by its nonsensical but rightful name and be understood. If you’re not from Philadelphia you probably call it Italian ice. Rehoboth establishments, being frequented by vacationers from the DC area and Philadelphia, use both terms and North noticed one place covered all the bases by advertising “Italian water ice.” I take even more pleasure in saying “water ice” than in calling sprinkles “jimmies,” though I had occasion on this trip to do that, too. We ate our frozen treats on a boardwalk bench under a gorgeous pinkish sky, full of sharply defined clouds. They were beautiful. Everything was beautiful.

Day 3: Monday

I resolved to stay off the beach until mid-afternoon because despite diligent application of sunblock I had gotten a mild burn on my shoulders as a result of being out in the noontime sun. I went to town instead where I successfully rented a bike. When the house is a twenty-minute walk from the beach and the boardwalk and downtown are a half hour and you don’t drive and parking’s impossible anyway, it’s really handy to have one. I used said bike to cruise around town, acquiring and iced café con leche, a couple books from the Books of Elsewhere series I’d pre-ordered for North, and some fudge. It was a very satisfactory outing.

I returned to the house, made myself a cucumber and mozzarella salad for lunch, sampled the strawberry cheesecake fudge I’d bought, and hung out with the older generation on the screened porch because Beth and the kids were at Jungle Jim’s water park, where they spent most of the day going down slides, riding the bumper boats, and playing mini golf. This is a beach week tradition of theirs, but I’ve never set foot in the place. I tell them it’s against my religion. They regard this statement with some skepticism.

I made it down to the beach just before three and Mom joined me shortly after that. I had a long swim—the waves were a little calmer than I’d like but it was still nice—and when I got out we had a long talk, mostly about various relatives and what they’re up to these days. Beth dropped North off at the beach (directly from the water park) around four-thirty. Apparently they hadn’t had enough of water for the day because they made a beeline for the ocean.  I stayed up on the sand with Mom until she left and then I joined North in the water. When it got to be around six I thought we should leave so we could get home and shower for dinner, but I had some difficulty coaxing my merchild out of the water.  At one point I was on the shore motioning them to come out and they held up five fingers. I wasn’t sure if that meant five minutes or five waves, but I held up one finger. As they stayed in for more than one wave, it must have meant minutes. And then, instead of walking to the towel, they cartwheeled.

Carole was the cook that night and she made a pasta salad with feta, tomatoes, and green beans. Although we did have dessert in the house, Beth, the kids, and I made a whoopie pie run into town anyway because sometimes you just need a whoopie pie.

Day 4

The following day Mom, YaYa, and Carole took the ferry to Cape May for a day trip. As she had been the day before, Beth was glued to the computer, waiting for a decision in the Janus case because when it was decided she would need to direct her union’s online response. That one didn’t come that day, just the awful decision on the Muslim ban. It was just the first of many wrenching political things that happened that week, as you know by now. Every 5-4 decision that goes the wrong way (for instance the Texas gerrymandering case the week before) just fills me with rage about the Supreme Court seat Mitch McConnell stole from President Obama. But this is a vacation post, so I won’t dwell on that.

Anyway, no decision meant Beth was free for the day, so she took North to the farmers’ market to get ingredients and then the four of us went to Grotto for lunch. The main reason for this expedition was so Noah could have baked ziti and much to his dismay it wasn’t on the menu, which he considered “a betrayal.” The boy is serious about pasta.

Because we had lunch on the late side and we stopped a couple places on the way home, including Candy Kitchen, it was 3:45 by the time North and I made it to the beach, but we were in the water almost constantly until almost six.

While we out of the water briefly, we came across three big mounds of sand someone else had made near the waterline and we decorated one of them with dribble castles. It was a good place to do this because there was plenty of wet sand available, but it was a bad place to do this because the relentless assault of the waves was eroding the base we were trying to build on and taking down other people’s work and ours, too. This was fun until it started to seem like a political metaphor, and then it was less fun. Whoops, there I go again.

We took another short break to eat the picnic of fruit, mushroom focaccia, and pretzels with cheese dip North had packed. I ate sparingly because I knew Beth was making her signature beach dinner of gazpacho, potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce, bread, and a cheese plate. This is definitely a meal you want to save room for.

That night Noah, Beth, YaYa, and Carole worked on the puzzle and made significant progress on it.

Day 5: Wednesday

The Janus decision was announced Wednesday. That’s the one that put another nail in the coffin of public sector unions, though I suspect that’s not how Beth was supposed to spin it. While Beth worked on the union’s response, the kids watched Dr. Who. Mom took them out to lunch at Grandpa Mac’s and then to Funland while YaYa and Carole had lunch with a friend of YaYa’s who lives nearby.

It was an overcast day so I felt safe enough swimming in the late morning. With the clouds and the wind, the day was almost chilly so there weren’t many people in the water, but people were on the beach playing with all sorts of balls—footballs, baseballs, lacrosse, and paddle balls—which gave the beach a kind of festive atmosphere.

I hadn’t read on the beach yet so I read a Washington Post Magazine and tried to read the Sunday Arts and Style section I’d brought from home, but reading the paper on the beach on windy day isn’t the best idea, so I had to put it away. I took a walk instead, in a loop, first north to a jetty of barnacle and algae-covered rocks and watched the water crash against them and make little whirlpools and channels between them. Then I turned around and backtracked to my towel and beyond it to another jetty. The lifeguard there blew his whistle at me for standing too close to the rocks.  I was annoyed because I wasn’t swimming near the rocks, which I understand is dangerous. I wasn’t even climbing on slippery rocks. I was standing on the sand next to them. I’m fifty-one years old for crying out loud. I think that’s old enough to stand next to rocks.

Anyway, I was hungry for lunch so I biked back to the house and had leftovers of Beth’s delicious dinner. She was on a work call while I ate, but I sat with her on the deck once she was finished and had her own lunch. We learned shortly afterward that Justice Kennedy had retired and that’s when it started to feel as if the whole damn sand castle had been swept to sea.

Noah came home from Funland ahead of Mom and North so instead of dwelling on our real imperiled world, he and visited another imperiled, fictional one, via Song of Susannah. We’ve been reading the Dark Tower series since last summer and we were nearing the end of book six of seven.

When North got home we went to the beach. When we first went into the water it was choppy and rough, so when the lifeguards called everyone in at five, I decided to rest a bit while North waited impatiently in the shallow water. North only started swimming past where the waves break last summer but now it’s all they want to do. The current rule is they have to be with me when there’s no lifeguard on duty and they have a hard time understanding why I’d want to do anything but swim at the beach, thus my limited reading time on this trip.

When I went back into the water the waves were bigger and more spread out, perfect really. I taught North how to ride up the underside of a swelling wave and glide up over the top, catching air on the other side. They caught on right away and loved it.

Back at the house we had YaYa’s famous spinach lasagna, garlic bread, and salad for dinner. It was the night the kids had chosen to film North’s video. Everyone came down to the beach to watch. We were on the beach about an hour, mostly waiting for the light to change  to the level of darkness North wanted for the second scene. North also had a costume change, which was effected behind the closed snack bar tucked back in the dunes. Beth and I held up a blanket to make a little tent against its back wall and they changed in there. It was a beautiful twilight with an all-but-full pale orange moon rising over the sea. The kids worked together well and everything went smoothly.

That is, it did until everyone had left in the car and I couldn’t find my bike key. I searched all over the beach and the parking lot with the flashlight on my cell phone (it was full dark now) but finally I had to call Beth and ask her to come get me. I left the bike chained to the rack. I was kind of dejected about it, but almost everyone was eating watermelon on the screened porch when I got back and that was cheering.

Day 6

The next morning I returned to the area and searched it thoroughly in daylight. I kept seeing yellow things—vegetation in the dunes, a Ricola wrapper on the sand, but none of them were the bright yellow fob on the key. I also made inquiries with the chair rental guy, the tennis court attendant, and the parking lot attendant but no one had turned in a key. (The lifeguards and snack bar employees weren’t on duty yet.) I decided to kill a little time in town on the slim chance a Good Samaritan would turn it into the bike shop (the address was on the keychain). But after going to the bookstore and a coffeehouse and browsing in a t-shirt shop, I went to the bike shop to make arrangements to get a new key. They didn’t have a record of the number on my lock and I hadn’t thought to check it, so they needed to send someone to the rack to find out and then they needed to send someone to the off-site location where they keep extra keys.

By this time it was almost noon and I was meeting Mom on the boardwalk for lunch, so I said I’d come back. By the time we’d finished our lunch—Mom got crab cakes and I got nachos—the key had arrived and to my surprise, there was no fee for the lost key. Atlantic Cycle now has a customer for life in me.

When I returned to the house, the kids were watching Dr. Who again and no one wanted to go to the beach, so I went alone. Beth had rented an umbrella and a chair earlier in the day (it was the only day she went to the beach in the daytime, having taken pity on North while I was off dealing with the bike key situation) and the chair and umbrella were still there, empty, so I sat in the shade and read two short stories from a collection of classic horror stories before I swam.

As I was standing in the water, I saw a pelican (the first of four) fly by and it reminded me that while I’d seen countless ospreys, most with fish in their talons and a couple horseshoe crabs, I hadn’t seen any dolphins all week and I’d been looking for them. As the sea was calm and flat and there was no one else in it to block my view—I was even further north than where I’d been swimming most of the week—I decided to just stand still and watch the horizon and then almost immediately I saw a fin, then three, and then one more. They didn’t jump out of the water, but it was eerie, as if something had told me just when to look.

I got into the water and swam. The waves were good, but I had to leave soon after the lifeguards blew the five o’clock whistle because we had 6:15 dinner reservations and I needed to get home and shower. Carole was treating us all to Japanese. I got seaweed salad and vegetable tempura, and we all shared a couple orders of edamame. It’s a pretty restaurant with bamboo strung with white lights and several koi ponds both inside and out. Everyone enjoyed their meals.

From there we wandered into town where Beth and Noah got ice cream, North got an açai bowl and I got a ginger lemonade. We split up and Mom, the kids, and I walked home the long way, along the boardwalk. That night YaYa, Carole, and Noah finished the puzzle. This was also the day we learned with a heavy heart about the five journalists who were killed at the Capital Gazette. The news would just not let up this week.

Day 7: Friday

Everyone spent the morning at the house—I was reading with Noah, doing laundry, and hanging out with my mom, who was packing. She had a flight out of Philadelphia the next day and was leaving to stay overnight with another friend. Mom and I ate leftovers for lunch and then watched about a half hour of Into the Woods with North, who was watching it in preparation for drama camp. They were thinking of trying out for Little Red or Rapunzel. After Mom left, I was sad because she lives on the other side of the country, and it could be a year before I see her again.

Noah cheered me up by coming to the beach with me. Like Beth, he had not been to the beach in daylight all week. (I don’t know how I convince so many people who aren’t beach-lovers to come to the beach with me for a week every year, but I appreciate the fact that they do.) We had a dip and relaxed on the sand. Eventually North joined us and we all went back into the water in various combinations. At the end it was just me and North. Our last wave knocked us both over (something similar happened to Noah earlier). I never like the last wave to be a bad one, but the lifeguards were blowing the whistle and to get in again we’d need to wait for them to drag their chairs up the beach and leave, and we needed to get home to shower for dinner, so that was it for the day.

We had pizza at Grotto and then some people got dessert and North and I split off to go to Funland, where we rode the Haunted Mansion, which is still a little scary for North. When we checked the screen with the souvenir photos they try to sell you afterward they said we couldn’t buy it because “it makes me look bad,” by which they meant slightly spooked in contrast to my calm face. I thought about how when they were eight, they wanted a picture of themselves cowering into me with their eyes shut tight and their arms thrown protectively over their face because it proved they’d been inside.

The Haunted Mansion cars have two routes, the only difference being sometimes they go out onto a balcony where you can briefly see the boardwalk and the ocean and people on the boardwalk can see you. This is the less common route, so we were both happy when the car went out there and people on the boardwalk waved. We had enough tickets left for North to ride the Free Fall and the Viking ship and then we walked on the beach. When I warned North not to let their phone get wet as they waded in the water, they felt for it in their pocket and couldn’t find it. It was in the sand, not far away, but I think that was a bigger scare for them the anything in the Haunted Mansion.

As we walked home on the boardwalk they were considering the pros and cons of the two parts they wanted (Rapunzel: better singing, Little Red: better acting). Then they sang part of a song and an older woman stopped us to compliment North’s voice.

Day 8: Saturday Again

Saturday morning was the usual scramble to pack and get out of the house, then I returned the bike and sat for a while in the shade of a boardwalk gazebo, admiring the sea and spotting more dolphins, while the rest of the crew sought air-conditioning. Next I went to buy myself a long-sleeved Rehoboth Beach t-shirt, because my old one has holes in both elbows. I found one that has a beach scene with horizontal stripes of color in the sunset, the ocean, the sand, and the dunes, in a pattern that kind of resembles a rainbow flag. (It’s sad I will probably never wear long sleeves again, though, since it’s crazy hot back here in the DC area and it’s hard to believe it will ever be cool again.)

I had a short swim, about a half hour, which was as long as I dared to stay in the sun so near noon. I was in the most crowded part of the beach, right in front of Rehoboth Avenue, and it was a hot, sunny Saturday morning, and the water was calm, almost like a wave pool, so the ocean was packed with people. This was quite a contrast to the beach where we’d been swimming all week, which always had people on it but never crowds.

Still, I was feeling a kinship with everyone standing around in the water together—the little black girl with the adorable Afro puffs, the people tossing footballs back and forth in the water, the middle-aged couple and their college-age daughter who just seemed really happy to be spending a weekend together and were all wondering if the daughter could get another one off work so they could do it again. The wildlife was different here, too. Instead of the countless ospreys with fish in their talons I’d been seeing all week, there was a gull with a French fry flying over our heads instead. I wouldn’t want to spend most of my beach time in the more populous part of the beach, but it has its charms, too.

Once I’d torn myself away from my last ocean swim, I got a bucket of fries and brought them to the alley of shops and stalls where we were all meeting for lunch. I bought orangeade for everyone, actually finished up a punch card and got a free drink, which was satisfying after Smoothie King refused to honor my punch card back in May. (I am still bitter about this.) After lunch the kids and I made our final purchases from Candy Kitchen and we went to put our feet in the water probably for the last time until we return in November for our annual Thanksgiving weekend trip. I’m hoping (though not necessarily expecting) that we will be celebrating happier political developments in the midterm elections that will take place a couple weeks before that. That would truly be a reason to give thanks.

We Are Headed North: College Tours, Installment #1

Load the car and write the note
Grab your bag and grab your coat
Tell the ones that need to know
We are headed north

From “I and Love and You” by the Avett Brothers

Monday: Takoma Park, MD to Lake George, NY

“I don’t know why they call it a resort,” North said as we drove into Lake George after a long day of driving. “It makes it sound like staying there is your last resort.”

Staying in the picturesque little town on a mountain lake in upstate New York was hardly our last resort. Beth chose it because it was most of the way to Burlington, Vermont, where we’d be touring Champlain College the next day and because of the mountains, although the hokey, brightly colored statuary (Santa Claus, Paul Bunyan, etc.) you often see in family-oriented summer resorts was a bonus.

We had a late dinner at a Chinese/Japanese restaurant and then it was time for showers for two of us, a bath for one of us, and for bed for everyone. North was disappointed it was too late for a swim in the hotel pool, especially since for them hotel pools were one of the selling points of the first portion of the trip, which would be focused squarely on their college-bound brother.

Tuesday: Lake George, NY to Burlington, VT

Beth and North managed to squeeze in a swim the next morning between breakfast in the hotel restaurant and a brief walk to the mostly frozen Lake George, where the kids stood on a dock and threw rocks at the thin edges of the ice. When they ran out of rocks, Noah ran back to shore for more. It reminded me so strongly of how much both kids loved to throw rocks at ice when they were little (and Noah’s complicated scoring system for this activity) that I couldn’t help but smile at Beth. It was like getting a fleeting glimpse of our little boy before we spent two days imagining our young man.

We got coffee and tea from the hotel coffee bar and hit the road at 9:30. We took the scenic route around Lake George but it was hard to tell when it ended because the whole drive to Burlington was scenic, full of tall evergreen trees rising from the snowy woods and mountains ringing lakes.

We got to Burlington in time for a very tasty lunch at a ramen place and then reported to Champlain College for a presentation by an admissions office administrator and a tour of campus by current students. We opted to take the shuttle down to a lakeside part of the campus where the Emergent Media Center is located because Noah is interested in both the film and computer science programs.

Champlain is a small college in a stunningly beautiful location, in the mountains very near Lake Champlain. The larger University of Vermont is in the same town so Burlington has a nice, funky college town feel. The campus is lovely, too. First-year students live in nineteen Victorian mansions. The rooms are all different shapes and a far cry from your standard cinder block-walled dorm room.

We knew Champlain had a pre-professional focus but I don’t think any of realized how pre-professional it was until we heard the presentation. That could be a plus or a minus (or both) but it’s definitely something to think about.

We were done by three-thirty, so we headed back to the hotel room and North, who had sat patiently through a boring (to them) presentation and walked around campus a bit hobbled from a twisted ankle got to swim for the second time that day. Beth and I partook of the pool as well—I swam laps for almost an hour in the tiny pool—and we all used the hot tub.

We had dinner at a fabulous vegetarian restaurant. Everything was good but the highlight was probably one of the two entrees Beth and I ordered to share—seitan with garlic mashed potatoes and spinach, though the sweet potato-mushroom soft tacos were very good, too, as was the guacamole in wonton wrappers. We all got different flavors of cake for dessert and shared bites with everyone else. Mine was maple because we were in Vermont and it seemed the thing to do. (We also got a tin of maple syrup at the college bookstore.)

Wednesday: Burlington, VT to North Truro, MA, via Boston MA

We hit the road shortly before nine and drove to Boston where Beth navigated heavy traffic amid confusing directions from Siri. We arrived in time for a quick lunch at a taqueria around the corner from Emerson College. Then we did the admissions presentation/tour thing again.

Being in downtown Boston, Emerson has a very different, more bustling feeling than Champlain, so that made for a nice contrast. The buildings that house the classrooms, labs, offices, and dorm rooms are all high rise buildings interspersed with non-college buildings along one city block. There’s no real campus, but it is right on Boston Common, so there’s nearby green space. Like Champlain, Emerson also has a pre-professional focus, but in addition to the communications, media, and film classes that attracted Noah there’s a robust performing arts program that piqued North’s interest. They’d been prepared to be bored again but by the end of the tour, which was conducted by two very animated performing arts majors, they were saying they would like to go to Emerson.

Noah was more reserved. It takes him a while to form opinions but he seems mildly positive about both schools, not sure if he’ll apply or not, but considering it. Of the two, he had a slight preference for Champlain. He thought it had a broader curriculum outside the majors. (I had the opposite impression, which just goes to show you how different people walk away from these presentations with different impressions.)

All week I’d been seeing Facebook posts from people I know with high school juniors who were doing exactly what we were doing, which made it feel like a communal experience. (Going into Emerson we also ran into a boy who’s been in all three magnets Noah’s attended, ever since fourth grade. I guess it’s not too surprising, as the last two magnets have been communications-focused.)  Some families had more ambitious itineraries than we did—we know one family that did seven schools in five days, but two felt like enough for now. Our next school will probably be St. Mary’s (Maryland’s public honors college) later this month, so Noah can see a more traditional liberal arts school, but for this trip we were done touring schools. It was hard for Noah to get started choosing schools and I was just glad he’d begun the process. Now we could relax a little with the R&R portion of our trip.

We left Boston immediately after the tour because we were heading for Cape Cod, where we’d spend the next three nights and two days. On the way to the Cape, we stopped to see Plymouth Rock and to eat dinner at Friendly’s. We were staying in North Truro, which is close to Provincetown.

Provincetown is a special place for Beth and me. We road tripped out there the spring break of my junior and her senior year of college, exactly thirty years ago, and then in the nineties and in 2000, we spent several Memorial Day weekends there because Beth was working for HRC and their retail store used to open for the season that weekend. Beth would help set up the computers in the store while I wandered the town and the beach. Often we stayed in houses with friends of hers from HRC. It was always a fun time. The last time we were in Provincetown, Beth wasn’t working at HRC anymore, but we came up again for Memorial Day weekend in 2004 when Noah was three, to hang out with HRC folks during their off hours and to play with Noah on the beach.

Thursday and Friday: North Truro, MA and Provincetown, MA

The first night we were in our beach house the thermostat went haywire and sent temperatures in the house soaring to ninety degrees. We had to open the windows in the middle of the night (it was in the thirties outside) to try to get the house down to a reasonable temperature until Beth could apply herself to the problem the next morning. She did fix it and the house, a charming, low-ceilinged, nineteenth-century home, was comfortable the rest of our stay. That morning while we were waiting for the house to cool down, the kids and I enjoyed the somewhat cooler enclosed porch.

Sadly, Noah didn’t get to relax as much as the rest of us. While we were on the road, he hadn’t done any schoolwork and he had a lot, so most of the time we were on the Cape, he was working. Beth and I went for a walk along a pond and down to the nearby bay beach about a mile from the house while he worked on an overdue AP biology chapter. North stayed at the house, too, wanting to rest their ankle. (North did get Noah to try out the backyard hammock.)

It was a sunny day in the forties, but it felt warmer. There was mist over the water that made it hard to see where the land on either side of the water ended and also where horizon was. We walked along the sand a bit and then got supplies for a picnic at a little corner grocery near the house. All four of us got in the car and drove to the Truro Lighthouse, where we ate bread, cheese, pickles, olives, chips, macaroni salad, one orange shared between us, and chocolate-covered cashews, all spread out on a bench on an observation platform at the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Next we drove to Head of the Meadows beach where we rambled on the beach, finding pretty rocks until Noah asked to go back to the house and Beth drove him there, then swung back to get me so Beth, North, and I could wander through Provincetown, window-shopping in the mostly closed stores. We did find an open bakery (not the Portuguese bakery we used to frequent—it was opening for the season in two days) but somewhere we could get hot drinks and baked goods. And then we found a candy store where we needed to buy chocolate rocks, and molasses taffy, and lemon and maple fudge and I don’t know what else. As we were sitting outside the store, a passerby informed us Spiritus (our favorite pizza place in P-town) was having its annual free slice day. We were too full to have a slice each, but we walked over there and got one to split between the three of us. We also visited the long causeway of boulders that goes to the beach. I used to love this walk (which takes about forty-five minutes each way) but North wasn’t up to it, so we walked far out enough to inspect a recent shipwreck and turned back.

We went back to the house and I tackled the laundry we’d accumulated thus far on the trip and then we all went out to dinner at a nice restaurant where we got vegetable alfredo, mushroom ravioli and curried tofu with apple chutney.

The next morning I was out of bed early, by 6:35, because rain was predicted to start as early as ten and possibly last all day and I wanted to go for a walk on the beach. Well, it never did rain, other than a few sprinkles, so I got in three walks. The first two were at the bay beach. It was called Cold Storage beach. I’m not sure why. I wondered if people dug root cellars into the sandy cliffs back in the day.

It was a cloudy, windy day even though it didn’t rain, and it felt colder than the day before. I had to keep moving so as not to get chilled. In between the two walks I went back to the house to warm up and fold laundry. When I returned, the tide had come in considerably and there wasn’t much room to walk between the water and the base of the cliffs. I found a platform in front of one of the boarded up shacks (storage units? changing rooms? showers?) on the beach. It was satisfying to be standing there as the biggest waves went right under the boards where I stood, as close as I could get to being in the water this time of year.

On the way back to the house, I stopped by the little grocery store and got a baguette and some maple-smoked cheddar cheese that had tempted me the day before. With these additions, we had a smorgasbord lunch of picnic and restaurant leftovers.

After lunch, for my third beach jaunt of the day, Beth drove me to Race Point and dropped me off so she and North could go browse the shops in Provincetown again. I spent over two hours walking and sitting. It’s a broad beach on the ocean side with a lighthouse and big dunes. After I’d walked a bit, I found a cleft in them and I thought it might be sheltered from the wind in there and a good place to sit if you could still see the ocean, but it turned out to be windier than the beach. I was intrigued by the shapes the wind had sculpted into the sand there and I considered exploring, but sand was blowing in my face, so I left.

When Beth and North picked me up North showed me a button they’d bought that had a unicorn and the word Queer on it. They’d seen a t-shirt in the window of the HRC store they liked, but the store wasn’t open for the season yet, so Beth ordered it for them online. Beth was disappointed, too, because she wanted to see if anyone she knew would be working there. We swung by a coffee/ice cream shop where I got a latte to help warm myself up and Beth, who hadn’t been walking on a windy beach got ice cream. (North got a bagel.)

Back at the house, I folded more laundry, and then Beth and I went back to Provincetown to pick up pizza from Spiritus to eat at home in front of the television because it was the day the second season of Series of Unfortunate Events was released. We’ve been waiting for this for over a year, so we settled in with our pizza and Easter-themed cupcakes (they had Cadbury mini eggs in the frosting and a whole Cadbury egg baked inside each one) to watch the first two episodes, which correspond to the novel The Austere Academy. It was highly satisfactory. The actress playing Carmelita is spot on. One addition I particularly liked was that the mascot of the Prufrock Prep is a dead horse and at pep rallies, the students chant: “What can’t be beat? A dead horse!”

Once North was in bed, Noah and I read a little bit of Wolves of the Calla. We’d been so busy we hadn’t read much (only once in the hotel in Lake George) so that was nice.

Saturday: North Truro, MA to Takoma Park, MD

In the morning we packed and left. There was a chalkboard in the kitchen where I’d written “SDL was here,” with a peace sign underneath shortly after we arrived. I added “Now she’s not,” with a frowning face underneath. Shortly before we left I regarded the stones I’d collected on the beach,  a couple that were translucent white and peach when wet but didn’t look as impressive dry and a few speckled ones. I decided to leave them at the house.

We went into town and picked up pastries at the Portuguese bakery, which had just opened that morning. I knew I used to have a regular order there but it’s been nearly fourteen years so I wasn’t sure what it was. I remembered it was one with a Portuguese name, so I chose two, a tiny tart filled with ground almonds and a sweet potato-filled pastry. We drove out to the causeway to eat. Once I bit into the sweet potato pastry I knew I’d picked the right one. We lingered a bit, walking out on the rocks, inspecting the shipwreck up close again and admiring the water and the dunes. No one was in a hurry to get on the road, but a little before ten we did and after a seven-state, thirteen-hour, too-many-podcasts-to-count drive, we were home.

White Christmas

Solstice

Thursday after school North went to AFI with their new friend Xavier and one of his moms to see A Muppet Christmas Carol and Noah came home still wearing a party hat from a party in his calculus class and no homework due the next day. He was quite chipper—drumming and reading Wizard and Glass ensued. Beth got home late—she was out getting a Christmas tree—but we had enough time to open presents from my mom and sister and eat gingerbread cookies. We were opening some of our presents early so we wouldn’t have to pack them all and I’d made gingerbread dough so we could take it with us to bake at Blackwater Falls State Park, where we were spending Christmas again. When I’d finished the dough, I baked about a dozen cookies for our Solstice celebration—a mix of snowmen, stars, and Christmas trees. After we’d opened the books, essential oils, a narwhal puppet, a cookbook, and spices and other goodies from my mom’s recent trip to Asia, North went to bed. When, later that evening, I found Noah up past his bedtime and told him to go to bed, he seemed genuinely surprised. He felt so unencumbered he’d forgotten it was a school night. (He’d been drumming on things other than his drums all afternoon and evening, which is often how I know he’s happy.)

Rain to Snow

After everyone had finished another day of work and school and errands and packing, we left Saturday morning a little after ten-thirty and drove to Blackwater. It was raining on and off the whole way and the temperature dropped from the high fifties to the high forties. (I know this because we have a new—to us—car we bought just last week and it has a screen on the dashboard that tells you things like that. It also tells you the name and artist of songs when you play music, which is educational for people like me with poor recognition of currently popular artists.)

About twenty minutes into the drive I told Beth it was good it was raining because it would make her happy when it changed to snow. Although the week overall was very cold, it didn’t get cold enough for snow during the drive, though we did see ice in the road cuts and patches of old snow here and there at the higher elevations.

On the way, we sang along with Christmas music and the kids had a spirited discussion about mistletoe and consent. Noah finds the whole concept of mistletoe problematic while North thinks it’s not that hard to ask before you kiss someone and he should just lighten up. Another topic of conversation: are all songs that portray Santa in a sexual or romantic light—e.g. “Santa Baby,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “I Wish My Mom Would Marry Santa Claus”—automatically creepy? North is a definite yes on this one.

We got to the cabin just before three, where we found YaYa and a pot of delicious homemade vegetable soup, which we enjoyed between putting up and decorating the tree and watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as a light snow fell.

Christmas Eve

We woke to a pretty dusting of snow on the ground and all over the tree branches outside the window and spent a cozy and relaxing day. North and I made hash browns to eat with breakfast. Then the kids and I made gingerbread cookies from the dough and decorated them with colored sugar and dried cranberries. In the afternoon YaYa took North to the pool up at the lodge—they stayed for hours—while Beth and I took a walk down some muddy trails to the partially frozen pond and on from there to the edge of the gorge where we admired the deep slopes of snow-frosted evergreens and the Elakala waterfall on the far side.

When we got back Beth and Noah watched Rogue One while I read. I was trying to finish a book I got last Christmas in time to start a new stack. (I didn’t quite manage it by Christmas but I did finish it while we were there.) I recommend it if a true crime-based, Appalachian Gothic novel that inspired a classic noir film sounds like your thing.

I made kale and potato soup for dinner with North’s help, while singing Christmas music together. I thought we harmonized particularly well on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” After dinner, we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns and just before North went to bed, Noah gave a very dramatic (and slightly menacing) reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” for some reason in an English accent.

Christmas Day

Santa’s first gift to Beth was seven inches of fluffy white snow that fell overnight. I’d given North instructions not to get out of bed until six at which point they could look in their stocking, and to be very quiet, as the fireplace was right outside the adults’ rooms. However, it was Noah who was up first, at 6:30, and he decided to wait for North to wake before they opened their stockings together at 7:10. Beth and I were up soon after that, and then YaYa soon after us. 

Everyone gathered around the tree with chocolate and clementines from our stockings to eat while we opened presents. (Did you know they call clementines “Christmas oranges” in Canada? I just found this out this year and now I want to call them that, except I’d feel like a poseur, since I’m not Canadian.) There was a great quantity of books, socks, soap, jam, tea, mugs, pajamas and clothes exchanged in all directions.  Noah’s big present was a new video camera and he also got three bags of pasta, while North got new headphones, an essential oil dispenser, and the promise of a hair dye job. Noah helped set up the oil dispenser and soon North’s room smelled pleasantly of peppermint.

Beth and North made a cranberry cake for breakfast and we ate it spread with lemon curd, along with eggs and veggie bacon. While we were looking out at the snow, I made an idle comment that someone should decorate the tiny evergreen tree in front of our cluster of cabins. Well, North was right on that, choosing several ornaments from our tree and adorning the little one.

While everyone else read, YaYa helped North run through their lines for the school play. It’s not Romeo and Juliet after all, but The Canterbury Tales. North is playing the Pardoner, which seems like a pretty good part, even though they were hoping for the Wife of Bath.

Noah worked on a puzzle of famous book covers he and YaYa had started earlier and everyone else went for a walk. We went back to the gorge overlook, but this time we took a more direct route, walking along the park road instead of the trails, because of the trails were covered with snow and it was quite cold. It was twelve degrees, three with the wind chill, which is about how cold it was most of our stay. Even so, it was good to be outside and moving in the fresh air and peaceful scenery. (Somewhat less peaceful while we were singing “Frosty the Snowman” and North was trying to make snowballs out of the powdery snow and throwing them at trees.) As we did many times during the trip, we saw deer with big fluffy white tails bounding across the road and into the woods.

When we got back to the cabin, Beth and North stayed outside to dig out the cars (Beth) and make a snow angel and a snowman (North). YaYa and I went inside and I made grilled cheese sandwiches and heated up soup for everyone’s lunch.

That evening we watched The Polar Express and most of us watched a Dr. Who Christmas special, which centered around the WWI Christmas truce. I knew that story but I wasn’t sure if it was real, apocryphal, or from a work of fiction. But then my friend Regina posted this on Facebook so now I know. I haven’t watched Dr. Who since the eighties, so I didn’t have the whole backstory, but I could follow well enough. The kids are both fans, especially Noah.

Post-Christmas

We spent three more days at Blackwater. Sadly, after taking the first three days of break off homework, Noah had to start working the day after Christmas—he had considerable homework, some of it due during break. There was a paper revision to submit online the day after Christmas and a history quiz (on two chapters of new reading) to take on New Year’s Eve. And that was just a small part of it. Homework over break is nothing new, but homework due during break is. I blame Governor Hogan, for compressing the school year and making us start a week late, even though the dates of the AP tests didn’t change.

Part of what Noah had to do was read in a four hundred-page book about how high-achieving high school students are overworked. I am finding this bitterly ironic, even though the book’s interesting. (I’m reading it, too.) He was working the rest of the time we were at Blackwater, though he took occasional breaks to work on the puzzle or read with me or go on outings. (Once we were home he worked straight through the last three days.)

The rest of us spent a lot of time reading our new books and we went to the pool two more times. I swam about sixty laps in the tiny pool each time, spending almost as much time turning around as swimming, but it was still good to be in the water and moving. North and I had it to ourselves the first time I was there and most of the second time. The pool was in a very pleasant room with a lot of natural light and windows looking out on snow-covered trees. And there was a hot tub, which Beth, North, and I all enjoyed the last time we were there.

We got three more inches of snow a couple days after Christmas and the kids tried out the park’s sled run. There’s a track that conveys your sled—with you on it—up the hill and then you sled down. They did three rides each, two together and one separately, after much negotiation about that ratio. The adults stood by the bonfire at the bottom of the hill or watched from inside the snack bar, which had a nice view of the hill.

Our last full day we all went out for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Davis, the nearest town. Afterwards Beth and I left everyone at the cabin and ventured slowly and carefully down a series of snow-covered wooden staircases that lead to Blackwater Falls. We’d all seen them the day before from an overview on the other side of the gorge, but they are lovely and close to Beth’s heart, so she wanted to see them up close, even in nine-degree weather. It didn’t feel quite that cold because it was a sunny day and we were exercising, climbing up and down all those stairs. (I did feel my nose hairs freeze, though.)

The falls were half-frozen, with water stained gold from the tannin in the hemlock and spruce trees tumbling over the bulging layers of ice. There were impressive icicles as well, of varying colors, from white to gold to brown, hanging from the rocks near the falls.

Later that day we watched as four well-fed looking deer pawed at the snow in front of the cabin, uncovering grass to eat. Earlier in the week I’d spent a long, fascinating time watching a woodpecker hollowing out a hole in the dead tree branch from the comfort of the cabin’s couch. I couldn’t tell it had just found a particularly tasty cache of bugs of it was making a shelter, but it kept climbing most of the way into the hole it was making, with just its tail sticking out and then getting back outside to make it bigger.

On Thursday, our last day at Blackwater, Beth and YaYa took the ornaments off the tree and dragged it out behind the cabin. North also removed the ornaments from the outside tree and then we all started to pack. As we sat around the table eating YaYa’s homemade cheesecake that night, Beth said, “I don’t want to go home.” I knew how she felt. It’s how I often feel when we leave the beach. But it’s not too soon to start dreaming about next year. On Friday morning as we were checking out, YaYa made reservations for another cabin, for Christmas 2018.

Year’s End

We’ve had a few days at home before work and school resume tomorrow. I’ve been extraordinarily social. On Saturday morning, I had coffee with a close friend from my grad school/adjunct days. Joyce now lives in Indiana but was in Maryland visiting family. I hadn’t seen her in a couple years so it was nice to catch up with each other. That afternoon we drove out to Northern Virginia to visit a high school friend of Beth’s who was having a small get-together with us, her son, nephew, and a co-worker. Heather put out quite a spread, including a homemade apple tart and a cheese pie made with puff pastry. We contributed pizzelles Beth and North made. (Later I made buckeyes and we continued taking sweets to everyone who invited us anywhere.)

On Sunday evening, we went to a New Year’s Eve party at our neighbors’ house, where Beth learned to play a card game called Hand and Foot. I don’t pick up games easily so I watched. I still have no idea how this game works, but everyone seemed to be having fun. Meanwhile North and the other kids jumped on the backyard trampoline in the dark. The kids had glow sticks so it was very pretty to watch from inside, but apparently, it was less harmonious out there because they all came inside with different versions of an argument the adults seemed uninterested in getting to the bottom of.

Back at home, we set the kids up with two bottles of sparkling cider and a wide array of salty snacks so they could welcome in the new year without us, as we preferred to go to bed. It was a big deal for North who had never stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve before. It’s possible Noah never has either but he was unimpressed with the television coverage of Times Square. “So we’re going to watch this for two hours?” he said after a few minutes and then it seemed like he might bail and North was upset because they didn’t want to be all alone at midnight, but a compromise was reached and he stayed in the living room along with some electronics to entertain himself. The kids were very quiet and we actually got to sleep before eleven and everyone got the New Year’s Eve they wanted.

On New Year’s Day, North and I met up at the U.S. Botanic Garden with one of my oldest friends, Brian, and his wife Jann who were in town for a wedding.  (I met Brian when I was twelve and he was twenty-four and renting the apartment on the third floor of our house and he used to babysit my sister and me if my mom was out at night or out of town overnight). The gardens are all inside a big greenhouse. We wandered from room to room admiring desert, tropical, Mediterranean, and medicinal plants and then we climbed up on the catwalk to see the plants in the atrium from a higher perspective. There are models of iconic D.C. buildings (the Capitol, Supreme Court, various monuments, etc.) all made of natural materials in the lobby and Brian really got a kick out of these. Finally, we toured the model train display. The tracks go through elaborate landscapes that change from year to year. This year the theme was Roadside Attractions, so there were models of Mount Rushmore and other less well known sights such as the Corn Palace in South Dakota, the world’s largest statue of a pistachio, etc. It was a nice place to stroll and talk for an hour and a half on a bitterly cold day.

Beth picked us up at the Metro and we dropped North off at Xavier’s. His moms invited us to come in and socialize later when we picked them up. They were having another lesbian couple with kids over for dinner. It so happens we know this couple. Their kids went to the same preschool as ours, though in different years. So, we ended our holiday with a brief, impromptu three lesbian couple get-together over tea and cranberry cake.

2017 was not an easy year by any stretch of the imagination and I doubt 2018 will be either, but I hope the combination of nature, family, and friends we enjoyed over the past ten days will help give us the strength to face whatever’s coming our way in the months ahead.

Happy Birthday, Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday

“Happy Thanksgiving Eve,” Beth said to me as she came back into the bedroom after her shower on Wednesday morning. I was still in bed looking at my phone.

“Happy Birthday Eve,” I responded. Beth’s birthday was on Thanksgiving this year and we were kind of stumped about when we should serve her cake. For breakfast on Thanksgiving morning, before we drove to Rehoboth for our Thanksgiving dinner and a weekend of Christmas shopping? As an afternoon snack when we arrived? I checked to see when her birthday had last fallen on Thanksgiving so I could consult my blog and see what we’d done, but, alas, it hadn’t happened since 2006 and I started writing this blog in 2007 so the answer was lost in the sands of time.

For this year, we settled on the night before Thanksgiving. I spent much of that afternoon cooking. With North’s help, I made a birthday cake for Beth, a chocolate layer cake with coffee frosting. I made the cake and North made the frosting and frosted it. After North consulted with Beth, they decorated it with chocolate jimmies and red sparkles. Their conversation went something like this, after North showed Beth the topping options and Beth chose the jimmies:

North: That’s it? No sparkles?
Beth: Do you recommend sparkles?
North: I always recommend sparkles.

Later I asked, “Should we use the fancy platter” and North said, “Yes,” in an exasperated tone that clearly said, “Why can you never recognize your own best ideas?”

For Beth’s pre-birthday dinner, at her request, I made breaded tofu sticks, tater tots, and homemade applesauce. I also made cranberry sauce and brandied sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving and mixed a little of the cranberry sauce into the applesauce. After dinner, Beth took her shift in the kitchen, making stuffing and mushroom gravy.

Thanksgiving Birthday

In the morning, I made pumpkin-pecan muffins and served them with scrambled eggs, clementines, and vegetarian bacon and sausage. Before we ate, Beth opened her presents: fancy olive oil in a ceramic jug with multicolored stripes, a Christmas ornament shaped like a pierogi, and an assortment of dark chocolate bars.

We left for the beach around 10:30 and arrived at our rented beach cottage about four hours later—we had to make a lot of pit stops. We explored the house, admiring the charming alpine slope of the ceilings in the attic bedrooms and in the living room. Then we unpacked, made up the beds, and by 3:15 I was on the beach. Afternoons are short in late November so shadows were already long in the golden light. The waves that were tall enough not to be all foam were translucent at the tips. The angle of the sun hitting the sea spray was such that there was a tiny rainbow with almost every wave. Once I’d noticed a couple of them, I couldn’t stop seeing them. It was magical.

I took a long walk. At the south end of the boardwalk, where there are beach houses, I could smell wood smoke. In the middle, where it’s commercial, I could smell French fries, even though none of the food stalls was open. I guess that aroma lingers. At the north end, where the big hotels are, I smelled smoke again, presumably from the fireplaces in their lounges. The only business open was Victoria’s, the ground-level restaurant at the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel, where people were eating Thanksgiving dinner behind the big windows that face the boardwalk. I was not alone on the beach, far from it. I guess people were working up an appetite for their dinners.

Over the course of the weekend while on the beach, I’d see countless parents photographing their children dressed in everything from church clothes to Christmas pajamas, a bride and groom in full wedding regalia, and a group of a half-dozen middle-aged to elderly men releasing star-shaped balloons and embracing each other, which reminded me that on the other side of the country, my mom and a group of relatives were gathering this weekend to scatter my stepfather’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean.

Back at the house, Beth and I heated up the food we’d made at home, and she mashed potatoes and made a fire. We shared our gratitudes and ate. We are thankful for: each other, the beach, the fact that American democracy has not completely collapsed and all the people working to keep that from happening, smiles, cranberry sauce, and the Internet. We ate: vegetarian turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, Brussels sprouts, rolls, and cranberry sauce. After a break for dishwashing and digestion, we ate pumpkin and apple pie in front of a fire and watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

Before we went to sleep that night, I said, “Happy birthday,” to Beth and she said, “Happy Thanksgiving,” to me.

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I am thankful for many things, of course, but top of mind is the fact that Beth was born the day before Thanksgiving fifty one years ago, that the beach is just a few hours away, that we can afford to go there two or three times a year, that we can afford to buy Christmas presents for each other and our loved ones, that Noah had much less homework than usual and so had some free time, that the weather was lovely all weekend, so sunny and mild that I spent hours roaming the beach and boardwalk every day for four days in a row, and for our family togetherness whether we’re collecting shells on the beach, singing at the annual sing-along and Christmas tree lighting on Rehoboth Avenue, browsing in the little downtown shops, eating at our favorite restaurants, or watching Christmas specials together in front of the fires that Beth and North built. (Saturday evening North lit one all by themselves.) That bond will get us through the hard things in life.

Of course, there are hard times and sad times and we don’t always have everything we’d like. North decided this year they are too old to sit on Santa’s lap in his little house on the boardwalk, but they couldn’t quite let go of the tradition completely, so they left a note in his mailbox. Inspired by that, I left my own anonymous note in the mailbox Sunday morning, asking for something dear to my heart but unlikely to happen—and no, it wasn’t Trump’s impeachment. It felt somehow therapeutic to leave the folded-up piece of notebook paper in the little metal box and walk away down the boardwalk.

Monumental Getaway

Gettysburg: Thursday

Three out of the past four summers we’ve gone to Hershey Park at the end of August. And, no, I will not write it Hersheypark, I just won’t, and you can’t make me. This year our trip wasn’t quite at the end of the kids’ summer break because our school calendar changed and they won’t go back until after Labor Day, but was close enough. We didn’t want to go too near Labor Day weekend, for fear of crowds. That’s also why we went during the week instead of on a weekend.

The kids had dentist appointments on Thursday morning, so we left early that afternoon. We’ve been squeezing in as many medical appointments as we can before school starts—two pediatrician appointments, two dentist appointments, one orthodontist appointment, and Noah got his wisdom teeth out, all in two weeks. I got in on the fun, too. I contracted a raging case of poison ivy on my right arm and left hand while weeding in the yard and had to go see my doctor to get a prescription for steroids after aloe, apple cider vinegar and some OTC remedies failed me. Between all the appointments and needing to work, most of my tentative plans to do some fun things with the kids during the last three weeks of summer break when their camps were all over went by the wayside. But this should make up for it.

We hit the road, drove an hour and fifteen minutes and had a picnic lunch at Cunningham Falls State Park at a pretty spot near the dammed lake. After we ate we went down to the water and watched the sunfish swimming in the shallows. June, hoping to get nibbled, waded in and stood still, but the fish did not oblige.

Our next stop was Gettysburg. One of Noah’s summer homework assignments is to write a short paper about monumental architecture and he didn’t want to use any of the many examples in our back yard, because he thought that’s what a lot of his classmates would do. He asked me if there were any monuments on the way to Hershey Park and I suggested Gettysburg.  There are dozens of monuments there. He chose the Pennsylvania State Monument, which is an excellent example of this kind of thing, having columns, a dome, the names of thousands of Civil War soldiers on metal plates, statues of many historical figures, plus Nike the goddess of Peace and Victory. It doesn’t get much more monumental than a goddess with a sword and an olive branch standing on a dome.

We spent most of our time at Gettysburg at this monument so Noah could photograph it and June and I could climb to the top. (There’s a staircase inside.) There was a nice view of the battlefield from up there and you also get to see the back of Lincoln’s head from a tiny window part way up the stairs. We looked at the lists of soldiers who served and learned that of the 34,000 Pennsylvanian soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, 1,200 were killed or mortally wounded and almost 4,000 more were wounded or went missing.

We also visited the Virginia State Monument and the statue of Abraham Lincoln outside the visitor’s center, where we read the Gettysburg Address on a big metal plaque. We could have read it many times, as it’s all over Gettysburg and not just in the park. I saw a motel that had the text of the address written all along the balcony rail. I was quite taken with that. The Visitor’s Center is also not without whimsy. The coffee shop is called Battlegrounds. I was a little surprised by that and thought they might as well have called it Hallowed Grounds, if they wanted to go there.

But a battlefield is a solemn place and while of course I did think about divisions in our country now and then while there, what hit me the hardest was watching my sixteen-year-old son walk along one of the trails and thinking about the fact that a lot of the soldiers—twenty percent by some estimates—were boys under eighteen. I also thought about the fact that while the last seven months have certainly felt like an ever-deepening crisis, it’s far from the worst crisis our country has seen. I think we’ll survive it.

And speaking of the present moment…as Confederate monuments are much in the news these days, Beth posted this essay to Facebook the day we were there. It’s a reflection by an African-American resident of Gettysburg about the Confederate monuments there. It’s worth a read.

Hershey: Thursday to Saturday 

We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon, settled in, and headed to Chocolate World. Chocolate World is a separate attraction, adjacent to Hershey Park, featuring a huge store, a food court, a simulated chocolate factory tour and other activities such as chocolate tastings. We ate dinner there and entered the park. June wanted to be measured for her ride classification immediately and was disappointed to be a Hershey bar, having missed the Twizzler cutoff by a fraction of an inch.  I don’t think there was ever a time June wanted to ride a Twizzler-and-Jolly-Rancher-only ride, but it was the principle of having the options limited like that.

That evening we rode the mine ride and the swings, which were all lit up with red lightbulbs. Beth, June, and I had had a late night Wednesday because June had insomnia so I was exhausted and we only stayed until 8:30.

Friday morning Beth and June went to swim in the hotel pool while Noah and I stayed in the room, reading The Waste Lands. We’re up to the third book in the Dark Tower series and I’m really enjoying sharing it with him, as I love these books. Mostly I’m impatient for the kids to go back to school, so I can have some peace and quiet to work, but the fact that it will slow our progress through Roland’s world is one drawback.

Being in such a chocolate-centric place had put me in the mood for mocha so Beth found a coffeehouse and I got one, plus a hot chocolate for June and at 10:07 we were walking through the gates of the park. We’d stay for almost eleven hours. (When we left, Noah said, “Why are we all so tired?”).

We were tired because we walked between 18,000 and 22,000 steps according to Beth’s and Noah’s phones. We went on all manner of rides, together and in different combinations. The picture is of us on the Wild Mouse, a little roller coaster with lots of sharp turns but no big drops. The picture is like every amusement park ride picture we’ve ever purchased, with all of us looking excited or scared except Noah who is unperturbed.

We also rode the smaller flume ride, which is a favorite of June’s, and the sky tram, which I love because it winds between the tracks of big coasters I’d never ride, and gives me a vicarious view of them. One of these is the Great Bear, which Noah always rides alone because no one else in the family wants to do quite that many loops. Noah, June, and I rode the sooper dooper looper, though and I even bought a tie-dyed t-shirt that says, “I survived the sooper dooper looper.” It’s one of only two coasters I’ve ever ridden that goes upside down (the other is the Corkscrew at Cedar Point) so while Noah thinks the slogan on the shirt is a joke given the small size of the coaster, for me it’s only partly one.

While Noah was off riding the Great Bear a second time, Beth, June, and I went to the water park. We didn’t stay too long there so we didn’t get to do the lazy river, which Beth and I would have liked or any of the water slides, which June and I would have liked. Instead we went in the wave pool for a couple of its cycles. It was refreshing the first time but by the second cycle I was starting to feel claustrophobic, because it was quite crowded.

Over the course of the day, I was dithering about whether to go on the Comet, the smallest of the three wooden coasters at Hershey Park. I’ve always loved wooden coasters best but as I get older, I get more scared of them and I always think maybe this is the year it will be more scary than fun, but I went on it with Noah and it was more fun than scary so that day hasn’t come yet. Beth probably knew I was going to go on it but she listened patiently while I talked myself into it. I do this every year. While we were riding the Comet, June went on the Laff Track, an indoor, glow-in-the-dark coaster that goes backward.

Of course, since it was Hershey Park, we didn’t just go on rides, but we ate a lot of sweets, including but not limited to sundaes and shakes with various kinds of Hershey candies in them. The strangest thing anyone consumed, though, was the soda Noah got that had frosting on top (not whipped cream, but buttercream frosting) and pop rocks at the bottom. It was advertised as an “immersive, multi-sensory beverage experience.” Before he drank it, Noah regarded it and said, “It’s like soda for Millennials… I see the Instagram potential.”

After a pizza dinner, June got a caricature drawn and we started repeating rides. June would have liked to stay until closing time at ten, but the rest of us were ready to call it a day by nine. (Well, some of us were ready earlier than that.)

We were finished with the park, but not with Hershey.  On Saturday morning, we spent a few hours in the botanical gardens on the site of Milton Hershey’s original rose garden, visiting the butterfly atrium, the rock, ornamental grasses, and herb gardens, and of course, the roses. With Beth’s help, June (who has decided to use gender-neutral pronouns) shot a short film about what they would do all day if they lived in the gardens.

We had lunch at an Italian bistro in Hotel Hershey and then went back to Chocolate World for dessert and to shop for candy. June also came out of there with a doll wearing a dress with Hershey’s kisses all over it. Its name, of course, is Candy. And as tradition dictates, we rode the factory tour ride, though the kids were distressed to find they’d changed the theme song the cows sing.

Finally, around mid-afternoon, we drove away from Hershey and the last of our summer getaways was over. But someday we’ll be back. And when we are, June will be a Twizzler.

Sea Dreams

He stakes all his silver
On a promise to be free
Mermaids live in colonies
All his sea dreams come to me

From “Dawntreader,” by Joni Mitchell

Saturday 

For the first time in nearly two decades of extended family vacations in Rehoboth, we arrived before check-in time. This must have been satisfying for Beth because she comes from a family of early arrivers and I come from a family of late arrivers and in general, when you mix these groups the late arrivers prevail.

But we managed to leave the house earlier than planned and there was surprisingly little traffic on the Bay Bridge, so even with a lunch stop our family of four plus Beth’s mom Andrea arrived in Rehoboth at 2:15. We had some time to kill before we could get into the house at three. I went to the beach and put my feet in the water while everyone else went into town for cool drinks.

Eventually we settled into the house and Beth went out for starter groceries and the West Coast contingent—my mother, sister Sara, and four-year-old niece Lan-Lan—all of whom had just spent two days in Philadelphia visiting with old friends—arrived and we socialized and Noah and I made a dinner of burgers, hot dogs, corn, fruit salad, and potato salad.

Sara tried to keep Lan-Lan from adjusting completely to East Coast time so the girls had the same bedtime much of the week (until biology eventually took over). After they were in bed and Beth and Noah were settled in front of an episode of Dr. Who, Mom and I walked down to the beach and I got my feet wet again. 

Sunday

June and Andrea went for an early morning walk and were back before the late risers were awake. Much of the morning was occupied with menu planning and grocery list making and grocery shopping. June played with Lan-Lan much of the morning while Beth, Noah, and Andrea started a thousand-piece lighthouse puzzle. I made the girls lunch and took them to the beach so Sara could work. The whole week was something of a busman’s holiday for her—she’s self-employed and this often happens.

The weather at the beach was perfect—low eighties, sunny, and not too humid, with cumulus and cirrus clouds scattered across a deep blue sky. We were there four hours and for most of that time, June was swimming in the ocean by herself while I stayed on shore with Lan-Lan, who was alternating between jumping happily in the surf and digging in the sand.

She was talking the whole time, sometimes to me, but often to herself, saying the waves were “awesome” and reassuring herself, “Okay, Lan-Lan, okay,” when the water got rough.  Most of what she said, she said over and over, but this exchange took place just once:

“I love this ocean.”

“I do, too.”

“It fun. It always fun.”

Lan-Lan’s main construction project was to build a hole so big “there’s no sand left” and I was kept busy filling her pail with water to fill the hole. At one point, she befriended a teenage girl who was digging her own hole and she started to help. The girl’s friend came by and seeing Lan-Lan dig with her hand and her foot said, “That’s impressive.” For a moment, I didn’t know what she was talking about. Lan-Lan was digging. Kids dig at the beach. Then I remembered she has just one arm and it is novel to see her do thing with her foot until you get used to it. (I saw her use her foot to press down on a knife she was using to slice cheese later in the week.)

We left the beach at 5:30, all three of us somewhat reluctant to go, but it was getting on dinnertime. No one had chosen this day to cook for the group, so some people cooked for themselves and others ordered takeout and we all ate a makeshift meal together.

I might have been wrong about the weather being perfect. A few more clouds might have helped. Despite being conscientious about re-applying sunblock, June’s face, neck, shoulders and back were badly burned and my shoulders burned, too. June’s ear, now exposed by her brand new asymmetrical hair cut was the worst casualty. Fortunately, Lan-Lan didn’t burn at all.

Monday

We decided to keep June off the beach entirely for a day, to buy her a rash guard to go over her suit, and enforce a no sleeveless tops rule for the rest of the week, to give her burned areas a chance to heal. That made Funland an appealing choice for Monday afternoon. Lan-Lan spent the morning at Kids’ Cottage, a drop-in daycare so Sara could work. When Lan-Lan got home, Mom, Sara, and I took all three kids. (I’d offered to take them by myself so Sara could get more work done but she said, “I don’t want to miss this.”)

I must admit I was hoping Lan-Lan would spend more time in the little kids’ rides because all week I was feeling a little nostalgic for when my kids were her age (especially when I’d see her in June’s hand-me-down pajamas or shorts or when I’d read Where the Wild Things Are to her). But Lan-Lan is more of a daredevil than either of my kids were at four and after a trip on the sedate airplanes, she wanted to go on faster rides. The race cars were a big hit—she did these three times and she also tried the little Ferris wheel, the helicopters, and the Freefall, which my kids didn’t ride until they were ten and six, respectively. She looked a little nervous on it but said she liked it. Next, she wanted to go on the swinging Viking boat. This was also scary, more so than the Freefall, and June had to put her arm around her when it got to be too much.

Both Sara and I thought the netted climbing structure would be a good way to calm down after all those exciting rides. There are two entrances—one for little kids and one for big kids. Lan-Lan did the little kid course while June did the big kid course. But then we discovered Lan-Lan was in the height overlap so she went through the big kid course, too, but she got stuck at the top, twenty or thirty feet above the ground, couldn’t figure out the way down, and started to cry, so we sent June in after her. Lan-Lan found her way down before June reached her but she was shaken up, so we tried the swings as the final ride. That helped some, but Sara says she was still upset in the car.

Noah, June, and I walked home, stopping at Candy Kitchen, and then taking the scenic route along the beach. We were walking along the waterline for twenty minutes and no one got soaking wet. That never happens with preschoolers. There are advantages to having older kids, even if I sometimes miss my little ones.

Mom was making a black bean-sweet potato stew when we got home, so I helped her finish it while we listened to a fifties music Pandora station. After dinner, Lan-Lan had her first taste of fudge—Sara is strict about sugar—and it was a hit. Often when Lan-Lan was allowed a small treat later in the week, she chose the strawberry fudge (we had four flavors in the house).

Tuesday

Andrea, Beth, the kids and I went out to get bagels and crepes on the boardwalk Tuesday morning. While we were there June and I ducked into a shop and got June a peach-colored rash guard that coordinated with her suit, so she could swim that afternoon. When we met back up with Andrea, Beth, and Noah we learned the cook at the crepe stand had undercooked the eggs in Beth’s crepe and then did the same to Andrea’s, so they got a refund and went elsewhere. My crepe and Noah’s were safe, being fruit-based, so we ate them. Noah finished before I did and he went with Beth and Andrea to get a second breakfast. Once they were gone, I heard another customer complaining about uncooked eggs.  I thought the employee should just start telling people she was out of eggs until someone could retrain her.

Late that morning, Mom took June to get pedicures and lunch at a Mexican restaurant. They both came home with dark purple toenails, in slightly different shades.

In the afternoon, we drifted down to the beach in groups. Andrea stayed behind to make dinner. Beth, Noah, and I got to the beach first and we all went into the water, which was very calm and in Noah’s rather vocal opinion, too cold, but he stayed in a half hour until he and Beth returned to the sand and I stayed a little longer, first alone, then with June when Mom, Sara, June, and Lan-Lan arrived.

Sara and Lan-Lan dug a complicated set of pools with connecting canals and I helped a little. I reminded me of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem I used to recite to June when she was little and dug at the beach:

When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
Our holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up
Till it could come no more.

We’d all left the beach by six, then we showered and devoured a whole pan of Andrea’s spinach lasagna as well as half of another pan of the gluten-free version she made for Sara.

After dinner, Noah and June settled in with a bowl of popcorn and an episode of Dr. Who, while Beth and I left for a dessert date. We rode our bikes into town in the twilight and got a milkshake for her and a whoopie pie for me and ate on the boardwalk. It was short, but it felt romantic. Then bringing home a brownie and a cookie for our mothers, we biked home and stayed up late talking with Andrea, Mom, and Sara on the screened porch. Sara marveled that we’d left our kids to put themselves to bed, trying to see her own future in this. 

Wednesday

The next morning Mom and Andrea went to see an art exhibit and a historic property while Beth and Sara took all three kids to Jungle Jim’s water park. I did not attend, as going to water parks at the beach is against my religion. (In fact, it’s one of the only tenets.) Instead I biked into town and picked up a book I’d ordered from Browse About and then hung out on the boardwalk for a while until it was time to meet Mom for lunch at a boardwalk restaurant.

I went to the beach in the late afternoon, alone because Andrea was taking June to high tea at a hotel, Sara was working, Lan-Lan was at Kids’ Cottage, Beth was cooking, and Mom and Noah felt like relaxing at the house. The day was beautiful again—we had an almost unbroken string of beautiful days. It was in the high seventies and sunny. The sea was calm and I was starting to worry I wouldn’t get to swim in waves this week.

That evening Beth served her signature beach meal—gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro sauce and fancy cheeses. Then Beth and I made another dessert run, this one more hurried because we wanted to get June her cinnamon bears before bedtime, though we ended up letting her stay up past bedtime anyway, because she and Grandmom were deep in conversation. Meanwhile, Beth, Andrea, and Noah worked on the nearly completed puzzle.

Thursday

Sara had been working all week and Thursday morning I finally broke down and asked if I could help with anything, but she said no because what was left was editing my work from the previous week and a project for a new client and it would take too long to bring me up to speed for that.

Noah and June played with Lan-Lan a long time that morning, pretending to be a family of performing octopi (they hummed different songs) and making cards for Sara and me with stickers. I was still trying to keep out of the sun until mid-afternoon, so once the kids were finished playing with Lan-Lan, we read the books we’d been reading all week, New Lands from the Chronicles of Egg with June and The Other Wind, the last book in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle with Noah. We finished it that day.

Sara did manage to get to the beach in the late afternoon. She came with Lan-Lan, who had spent a few hours at Kids’ Cottage, and Grandmom and June, who had been resting at the house. Andrea came down just a little before they did. Beth had been reading on the beach and I’d been swimming around an hour in better waves. They were still smaller than I like and a bit closer together, but it was a good swim. When June got to the beach we swam some more, but eventually I left her alone in the water and sat in Sara’s beach tent with Sara, where we sheltered from the sun and blowing sand and let Lan-Lan bury our feet in the sand. Then she’d pour water on them. Once when she did this, my big toe was exposed.

“Oh no!” I said, “A toe came out.”

“That’s just how life goes,” Lan-Lan told me.

While thus engaged, I realized I no longer watch June every minute when she’s in the water alone (though I think Beth does). She’s gotten to be a pretty strong ocean swimmer. Everyone noticed how confident and comfortable she seemed in the water.

Sara made eggplant parmesan that night and then we went to the boardwalk for dessert. We split up and there was a mix-up with June’s mermaid shake. It comes with a cloud of cotton candy and Swedish fish and a strip of rainbow-striped candy on top and I’m not even going to tell you how much it cost because it’s a ridiculous amount to pay for a milkshake. Anyway, Beth and Mom both bought one not realizing the other was doing the same. We’d told June we were going to buy her shake when she left the house in Sara’s rental car with Mom, so Beth was irritated.

While June and I were on the beach, leaving the rest of the party on the boardwalk, I told June she should probably apologize to Beth because she was supposed to pass the message on to Grandmom about not buying the expensive shake. She told me she already had and offered to pay for the extra shake out of her allowance. I told her that was very mature of her, even though Beth said she didn’t have to do that. Sometimes kids grow up when you aren’t expecting it.

Friday

Friday Sara didn’t work and she went to rent a bike so we could go on a bike ride on the Gordon’s Pond trail in Cape Henlopen State Park. While she was doing that I took the kids to Browse-About because Mom had given Noah some money to buy a book. He selected The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, a YA horror novel. I’ve read some of the author’s middle grade books with both kids, but this one looks considerably darker. June wanted to tag along and when she found there’s a new book in the Serafina series she wanted it, so I bought it for her. It was a hot day, the first real hot one since we’d been at the beach so we got smoothies for the walk home.

Beth, Sara, and I set out for our bike ride shortly after lunch, with Lan-Lan riding on the child seat of Sara’s bike. This was a new experience for Lan-Lan and she was enthusiastic about it. We biked about an hour, most of it through a pretty salt marsh full of water birds, including a few egrets, which are Sara’s favorite bird. Lan-Lan didn’t like the smell of the mud, but Sara said it reminded her of catching salamanders in puddles near the lake in the Berkshires where we vacationed as kids.

When we got to the ocean, we were hot and ready to get wet. The waves were about the same as they had been the day before during my first swim, but the second time I went in they’d gotten bigger and spaced out and I had the best swim of the week, including two waves I sailed up and over, dropping down the other side after just a moment with the top half of my body airborne.

Lan-Lan was getting hungry and Sara had forgotten snacks, so she approached a mom with a large group of kids and asked if she had anything and she came back with a feast of goldfish, cheese sticks, and watermelon. That’s something I could never do, but it’s the kind of thing that often works for Sara.

Meanwhile, Beth spied a water ice truck parked up near the jetty and she and I snuck off to get a sugary treat Lan-Lan wasn’t allowed. I could have been smoother, though, as I came back with vivid blue stains on my shirt, arm, teeth, and lips.

“Why your mouth blue?” Lan-Lan wanted to know. I told her I drank something that made it blue and that seemed to satisfy her.

On the ride home, Lan-Lan fell asleep. She’d been up past her bedtime on the boardwalk the night before and she was tuckered out.

But we still had a big night ahead of us. We were going out to dinner—Mom and Sara split off and went to a seafood place while the rest of us went out for pizza and Stromboli and gelato at Grotto. Lan-Lan was beside herself about the pizza, the gelato, and the balloon they give kids as you leave. It was a completely satisfactory dining experience in her opinion.

From there, Beth, Andrea and Noah went home and I took the girls to Funland where we met up with Mom. June and I were going to the Haunted Mansion and Mom was going to take Lan-Lan to revisit some of her favorite rides while Sara read a magazine on the boardwalk. While we were in the Haunted Mansion, our car went out on the balcony and we got a glimpse of the boardwalk and the ocean. This only happens once in a blue moon and I always hope it will. June didn’t even know it was a possibility as it’s never happened in the three previous times she’s been on this ride.

After the mansion, June went on the Graviton and the Free Fall, and we found Grandmom and Lan-Lan. June and Lan-Lan went on the teacups together, which Lan-Lan loved, though they scared Noah when he was in preschool. She was laughing the whole time. Based on her other favorites, I think fast but low to the ground is what she likes right now. Everything that spooked her went too high.

Everyone else drove home, but I decided to walk because the night was so lovely. The sky was still pinkish orange from the sunset and the wet sand was silvery and reflective.

Saturday

Saturday was the usual rush of cleaning out the fridge and packing the cars and saying goodbye. We had to return the keys by ten, so we left before Mom, Sara, and Lan-Lan were out of the house and on their way to Philadelphia where they’d fly to Oregon the next day. We were planning to linger in Rehoboth a few hours. Beth, Andrea, and June went to town to get henna tattoos for June—a treble clef on her hand and a moon and stars just above her ankle.

Noah and I went to the beach and I was pleased that he came in with me again for fifteen minutes or so. Then he went to relax on the towel while I swam for another fifteen minutes. I had only changed into my swim bottoms and a t-shirt at the house, thinking I might just wade, or we’d walk up to the boardwalk and change in the restrooms there, but I had developed some painful blisters on my toes and breaking up the walk was appealing and once I was in the water, so was diving under the waves, so I just did it in my clothes.

Around eleven we started walking toward our meeting place on the boardwalk. We got lunch at a crepe stand, ran some errands, and drove out of town, around two-thirty. We stopped at home furnishing store where Mom had pointed out some birdcages she liked to June (Mom collects them) because June thought they would be a good birthday present for her, but it turned out they were store decorations and not for sale.

Around quarter to five, we got to the Bay Bridge, where the sky got suddenly ominous. Then as we reached the middle of the bridge, it was just like driving into a high-domed cave. The clouds were that defined, and they had clearly visible projections like stalactites hanging from the bottom. Once we were completely under the cloud cover, it began to pour rain, which lasted for just a few minutes before petering out to light rain and pale gray skies.

On one side was vacation; on the other was the rest of the summer with all its chaos and camps and performances, and music lessons, and driving school, and whatever else awaits us in the next nine weeks.

Welcome to New York

Saturday

The train pulled out of Union Station at 11:30 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and by the time we got to the next station at New Carrollton, rain was streaking across the windows. I hoped it would be a passing squall or we’d travel past it because we were planning a busy twenty-six-hour trip to New York City—a belated birthday present for June— and for a lot of that time we’d be outside on a boat, in a horse-drawn carriage, or walking from place to place. I needn’t have worried. The rain cleared quickly and we didn’t see another drop until we were on another train, heading south the next day.

We passed the train ride reading books and magazines, listening to music and podcasts and playing games on the IPad. June talked me into buying her a Gatorade and the world’s most expensive Twix bar ($3!) at the café car. June must have noticed me leaning forward a little in my seat to see Boathouse Row and the zoo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as we passed through my home town.

“What are you looking at?” she asked.

“Philadelphia,” I said a little sadly, because I haven’t been there in several years, since my mom moved to Oregon.

We got off the train around 3:45 and walked to our hotel. Beth had reserved a room with two queen beds but for some reason we’d been upgraded to two separate rooms with a king bed apiece. The kids don’t like to sleep in the same bed, so Beth was rooming with June and I was with Noah.

Once we were settled into the rooms, we walked to pub on 47th street in Hell’s Kitchen, where Beth’s high school friend Michelle, an actor and singer, was singing. We caught the last few songs of her set, including a syncopated version of “Breakfast in America” and “Blue Bayou.”

When her act was over, she came over to our table, where June was drinking a virgin mojito and Noah had a soda. Michelle hadn’t seen Noah since he was three and she’d never met June, so they got acquainted and she and Beth started to catch up about family and friends from home, a conversation that unspooled throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening. While June was in the bathroom, Michelle asked why she was walking with a cane, and we filled her in on June’s year of injuries—some of which I haven’t even chronicled here. Did I mention the dislocated finger? Or the elbow injury? I don’t think so, but if you looked carefully at the picture on Noah’s birthday blog post, you may have noticed June’s arm was in a sling.

As if to drive all this home, on a subsequent visit to the restroom (the Gatorade June drank on the train was a very big one), Michelle was the first witness to a new injury as she crossed paths with a tearful June who had just slammed her fingers in the restroom door. Michelle fetched some ice from the bartender and we proceeded from the pub to a drug store for painkiller. For much of the evening, I was carrying the ice in a plastic baggie and leaving a trail of water drops everywhere I went.

Next up was dinner. June wanted New York pizza and Michelle had a restaurant in mind, but we were in the theater district and it was around five so there was a long line of theater goers who wanted an early dinner and the greeter predicted an hour wait. We left, found a promising hole in the wall with no line, but by this time June had to go to the bathroom again and they didn’t have one, so we found a Starbucks, used the facilities there and stopped at the next pizza place. Fortunately, they weren’t in short supply. This one had a sign saying the restroom was out of order, and as we were trying to decide whether June could stay long enough to get some pizza and eat it, the proprietor said we could use the bathroom after all. (The toilet didn’t flush but it looked like this state of affairs was a very recent development, so we made do.)  We got two kinds of greasy pizza, vegetable Stromboli, garlic knots, and mozzarella sticks. It was very satisfying. Thanks for your intrepid pizza-finding skills, Michelle!

From there we walked to the water, because we were taking a sunset cruise on the Hudson and East rivers. We saw the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, the Empire State Building lit up in red, white, and blue for Memorial Day and many other sights.

June, Michelle, and Beth were out on the deck most of the time, while Noah and I stayed inside. The view was good from there and I could hear the narration better. When we were at the Statue of Liberty, the tour guide read Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus”— you know, the one with the lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He read the whole thing and I was glad of it because I’ve always been fond of that poem and it seems particularly relevant now.

Near the end of the cruise, I joined June out on the deck and Beth and Michelle went inside. I asked June if she was cold in her thin cotton dress (because I was cold in a turtleneck) and she said no. We said goodnight to Michelle at her subway stop and walked back to the hotel, where we crashed, well past everyone’s bedtime.

Sunday

We had breakfast at a hotel restaurant several blocks away. We’d picked it because June wanted pancakes and they were on the menu, but we’d missed the detail that they were on the weekday breakfast menu and not the weekend brunch menu. She chose doughnuts instead and didn’t like them because they were more like cream puffs filled with cannoli cream. There were three of the offending pastries and Beth, Noah, and I took care of eating them for her, while Beth gave June half her berry-covered waffles and everyone was happy. (I had a mushroom omelet and a salad.) Noah had to write a restaurant review for his journalism class and he’d decided to review this one so we kept giving him suggestions about what to say about it.

June’s next agenda item was a carriage ride in Central Park. Noah asked if he could go back to the hotel instead and we let him, because he seemed to need some alone time. Beth gave him directions on how to get to the Broadway theater where we were going to see a show and we decided to trust he’d find his way there.

When you approach Central Park on foot you are accosted by dozens of people with laminated cards explaining why their carriage ride is the best, but we found a driver who wasn’t too aggressive with the upsell and settled in for a pleasant ride through the park. Beth and June got a soft pretzel and Belgian waffles in the park but I was too full from breakfast, so I skipped lunch. We walked to the theater, where we arrived just in time for the show. Noah was waiting for us, having managed to get himself lunch and find the theater. Beth commented on Facebook, “This raising the kids to be independent adults thing is moving along quite nicely.”

The play was fun. I’d expected June to choose Cats, as it’s the only show currently on Broadway her musical drama camp has tackled and I thought she might like to see a professional sing her solo from “Memory,” but she went with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory instead. I guess that’s not surprising as both kids were quite fond of the book when they were younger.

I liked the set for the first act, which mainly takes place in the Buckets’ tumble-down house, with the bed the four grandparents share elevated high above the rest of the house and tilted slightly forward, which gives you a good view of the actors and makes it seem like it might collapse at any moment. The second act sets, in the factory, were kind of minimalist for what’s supposed to be a place of exuberant wonders. The best one was the meadow made of candy where Augustus Gloop falls into the lake, but it takes up a surprisingly small portion of the stage.

And speaking of Augustus, I thought the German stereotypes in his portrayal went overboard and this ethnic and racial stereotyping was evident in most of the kid characters (who, except Charlie were all played by adults). There were some clever updates, with Mike Teavee being a hacker obsessed with all screens and not just television, and Violet Beauregard being a social media celebrity.

The Oompa Loompas were imaginatively portrayed by kneeling actors with puppet bodies hanging from their heads. Their colonialist back story is still in there, but you have to lay the blame for that on Road Dahl. I also liked the spooky squirrels in the nut room. They’re huge and have red eyes. It’s a ballet scene so Beth thought they were supposed to evoke the Rat King from the Nutcracker. As for the acting, the boy who played Charlie was good—and I liked the way the script made him a more well-rounded character than in the book. (It’s always bothered me that Charlie inherits the factory merely for not misbehaving, but this production gives him more motivation.) Ms. Teavee was also more well developed than in the book and I liked her character. The actor who played Willy Wonka was fine, but he wasn’t Gene Wilder. That’s all I have to say about that.

Overall, we enjoyed the show and we also got some overpriced candy during intermission because how could you not?

We had a little time to kill before the train, so we window shopped a bit. June had already gotten a smiley face fidget spinner as her one promised souvenir but she wanted to buy another one with her own money. She tried on a baseball hat that said New York in rhinestones and looked at a lot of New York magnets, but she went with a pocket watch she found in a warren of booths near the theater. Once she’d made her purchase, we walked to Penn Station, bought some food to eat on the train and said goodbye to New York until our next visit.

On Turning Fifty

Before my birthday

I got the AARP card in the mail about a week before I turned fifty. Even though a few of my friends have already turned fifty and mentioned that this happens, I was still surprised. I don’t mind turning fifty, but it does take you aback.

Ten years ago, I wrote about turning forty with flashbacks to my tenth, twentieth, and thirtieth birthdays thrown in for fun. To sum up the last two milestone birthdays: When I turned thirty I was mired in the endless, early stage of dissertation writing and not sure if I was going to make it through my Ph.D. program, and when I turned forty I’d recently come to the decision to quit looking for academic work, after a decade spent finishing the degree, then working at non-tenure track jobs or none, while chasing after the brass ring of a tenure track job. I described myself as “somewhat adrift” and uncertain what would come next. But I was an at-home mom to a one year old and six year old, so I was plenty busy and had some time to think about a plan.

But instead of planning a new career, I just sort of fell into the work I do now. That summer I started doing a couple hours of research a week for my sister’s free-lance writing business because she had a big project and she needed some help. After another year or so I was ghost-writing the occasional article for a natural foods newsletter for her. When June started kindergarten, we made it a regular part-time job. Will I still be working with Sara when I turn sixty? Your guess is as good as mine.

The weekend before my birthday Beth and I went to see Fun Home, a musical adapted from Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir of the same name. I’d asked for tickets as a birthday present, because I am a fan of Bechdel’s work in general and this book in particular. Part of it even takes place at Oberlin as Bechdel attended Oberlin, graduating in 1981, seven years before Beth and eight years before me. And while the scenes depicting a young lesbian coming out at our small liberal arts college during roughly the same historical period I did were certainly familiar, the childhood scenes were, too.  Like Bechdel, I also lived in a small town in Pennsylvania in a Victorian house my unhappily married parents were restoring. There were differences, too, of course. The two main ones being my father wasn’t a closeted gay man and he did not die by suicide. Also, we only lived in that town for four and half years, not my whole childhood, so we weren’t rooted there. But I still consider that period from the end of third grade to the middle of eighth grade to be the heart of my childhood and it had outsize importance to me. Anyway, the play was well written and well acted and we enjoyed it.

The evening before my birthday I spent pleasantly sequestered in my room, reading with Noah or looking at my phone, under orders not to come out while everyone was wrapping presents and signing cards and the smell of a chocolate cake baking wafted into the room.

The Big 5-0

The day itself was a normal work day. In the morning, I cleaned the bathroom and then I ghost wrote a blog post about pregnant women’s intake of omega-3 fatty acids. I did take myself out for a late lunch at Republic, where I had a Brie, arugula, apricot, and pistachio sandwich. From there I walked to Capital City Cheesecake where I ran into the children’s librarian from our public library. She greeted me my name, even though it’s been quite a while since June and I were regulars at her Circle Time for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. I told her it was my fiftieth birthday and she said, “That’s a big one,” in the exact same tone she uses when someone is turning three and she’s about to lead the room in a round of “Happy Birthday.”  (And if that sounds like it was patronizing, it wasn’t at all. She’s not one to talk down to kids.) I got a latte and free mini chocolate mousse there because it was my birthday. (I would not have known free treats were on offer if Karen hadn’t told me while we were in line). Then I headed back home to exercise and wait for Beth and the kids to come home.

Beth and June came home around the same time (which early for Beth and late for June) because Beth cut out after a meeting and June had been walking a practice 5K with her running club. (She’s not confident enough on her recently healed feet to run yet.) It was a cold, wet day and she was soaked through, so I hustled her off to a warm bath while Beth went out to pick up dinner, which was Mexican take out at my request.

I opened my presents after dinner. Noah got me two graphic novels by Margaret Atwood I didn’t even know existed, so that was a nice surprise. And June got me a gift certificate to Starbucks, a purple tie-dyed beach towel, and a home-made gift certificate for the Tea and Spice Exchange in Rehoboth because my big present, from Beth, was a weekend in Rehoboth.

I knew there was a surprise planned for this weekend because Beth told me not to schedule anything and we had to cancel some plans as well. I was thinking a trip to Rehoboth was likely but I didn’t know for sure until I was working at the computer on the morning of my birthday and a notification about our hotel reservations flashed across the screen. I resolved not to tell anyone I knew and even rehearsed what I’d say when I opened the card to make it sound as if I was just learning the news.

“Hooray! That’s what I hoped it would be,” I said, which was true.

I didn’t fool Beth for a second. “You knew,” she said, so I told her about the notification.

I’d eaten a late lunch and a big dinner so I wanted to wait on the cake. I read Deadweather and Sunrise to June and then we had cake and ice cream. It was a chocolate cake with strawberry frosting, which is the cake I most often request for my birthday—you would, too, if you ever tried Beth’s chocolate cake with strawberry frosting—and Neapolitan ice cream.

Friday

The next day was our beach trip. We hit the road around 4:45 in the afternoon. It was raining on and off, sometimes pretty hard, so between the rain and rush hour traffic and a stop for dinner (at a pizza place near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge where June got a sorbet served in a frozen, hollowed out lemon for dessert) it was around 9:15 by the time we checked into our hotel. June and I slipped down to the beach for a quick visit and we all went to bed around ten.

Saturday

We went out for breakfast at Victoria’s, a restaurant in a boardwalk hotel June likes for its fancy Victorian décor and I like for the ocean view. The food’s not bad either. Beth and I both got the blueberry banana blintzes. The day was cold and rainy so we decided I’d hole up in the hotel room and read with Noah in hopes it would clear up later. Meanwhile Beth and June went to the hotel pool. We had lunch at Grandpa Mac where three out of four of us got mac and cheese with various add-ins. (I went with spinach.)

In the early afternoon, I took a walk on the beach. It had stopped raining but it was still chilly and overcast. As I walked, I was feeling pensive about turning fifty. I saw several teenage girls who seemed to be playing volleyball without a net. They were all in identical black capri leggings, which made me think they were in uniform under their various hoodies and windbreakers. Then I saw an older man in a tweed jacket and a ball cap who was probably doing tai chi. I thought life is like that. Sometimes you’re just reacting to other people’s moves, knowing what general direction you want to move the ball, but unsure if you’re getting over the goal or not because you can’t see it. And sometimes it’s being on your own, making what may look like crazy moves even as they have an underlying purpose and grace.

Beth and June had gone to Funland, so I headed over there to meet them. I got nostalgic walking past the little kid rides, but then I remembered I’ll have a chance to see my niece ride them this summer, which was a cheering thought.

June had almost used up her ride tickets and was moving on to the games. We left with two new stuffed animals (a llama she named Lorenzo and a tiny sea turtle she named Flo) to add to the little Japanese cat (Sakura) she bought earlier in the day at Candy Kitchen. We swung by the tea and spice shop where I got three kinds of tea, vanilla sugar, and a new infuser. Then we got some free Earl Gray crème tea they were giving away for Mother’s Day. I’m not sure if they were giving it to all women or just those with kids in tow.

Back at the hotel where Noah was doing pre-calc, I took June back to the pool. We read for a little while, but it was too loud to keep going, so we gave up.  She got in the water, I stayed poolside and we tossed a ball back and forth. Then Beth came down and I went up to the room to read with Noah. By dinnertime, we were three-fourths of the way through the 120-page reading he had to do in The Sympathizer, a novel about espionage within the Vietnamese-American community shortly after the Vietnam war. It’s good, but intense, so I would have preferred it in smaller doses.

We had dinner at Grotto. I was supposed to pick all the restaurants because it was my birthday weekend, but there would have been an uprising if we hadn’t gone to Grotto and to tell the truth, a trip to Rehoboth would have felt strange without it.

While June was in the bath, I made a quick visit to the beach. It wasn’t raining but it was still cold and windy. The waves were big and full of foam, which the boardwalk lights gave a yellowish cast, like the whites in old photographs. The foam gathered on the sand, only to be half blown away before the next wave could wipe the remnants off the wet sand.

Mother’s Day

Sunday morning was sunny and sparkly, so June and I took a pre-breakfast walk down on the beach. We saw volleyball nets all lined up om the beach, as if for a tournament and someone setting up mile markers for a race on the boardwalk.

We’d wondered if everywhere would be mobbed for Mother’s Day, but we got to Egg by eight and there was only a twenty-minute wait, so we took a walk by the canal. I recommend the peanut butter French toast, (though if you’re there in the fall or winter, the pumpkin pecan French toast is even better). Noah’s lemon curd crepes looked pretty good, too.

We returned to the hotel where Noah and I sat on the balcony and knocked off another chapter of The Sympathizer, while occasionally looking up to enjoy the ocean view. Beth and June made their third visit to the pool. After we checked out of the hotel, Noah went to work in the lounge of another hotel, Beth and June went to a coffee shop and I walked down the boardwalk, where I saw a man playing the pan pipes and a group of mostly middle aged and older folks—a church group perhaps—gathered by one of the gazebos singing “Kumbaya.” I heard someone say they saw dolphins but I couldn’t spy any.

We all met up and gathered food from various establishments to eat on the boardwalk and then June and I went to put our feet in the water before leaving. (She did it in boots, I did it barefoot as it had gotten surprisingly warm.) While we were on the beach we did see a few dolphins. Then we drove home to unpack, grocery shop, and open our Mother’s Day presents- a Busboys and Poets gift certificate for Beth and a black umbrella with clouds on the underside for me. (I’d just left my umbrella on a bus the week before.)

Though my birthday weekend is over, I am not quite finished with celebration. I’m having dinner out with several friends, but not for a few weeks because June’s Girl Scout is going camping next weekend and over Memorial Day weekend, we’re going to New York City to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway, which was one of June’s birthday presents. Fifty is getting off to a busy start.

Goodbyes

Friday

Getting to Ashland is always an adventure. This journey, to attend my stepfather’s memorial service and spend time with family, required three flights and took about fifteen hours, door to door. If Beth hadn’t remembered the night before we left that she’d left the car at the Metro station in the morning and accidentally taken a bus home from work that night in time to retrieve it, we might not have even made the first flight. The second one was nearly cancelled because the crew was close to timing out and then on boarding it Beth discovered another passenger in her seat whose boarding pass had the same seat assignment as hers printed on it. Luckily, they found another seat for her and we didn’t have to decide whether to all get off the plane or to split up and proceed from St. Louis to Portland without her. (She says that’s what we should have done.) After the third flight, to Medford, Oregon, we discovered both Noah’s and June’s luggage had gone astray and in different ways. Noah’s got left in Portland and June’s went to Chicago instead of St. Louis. But on the bright side, no one got a migraine or threw up (despite some sickening turbulence on the second flight). Mom picked us up at the airport and after saying a brief hello to my sister Sara and her boyfriend Dave at her house, we crashed.

Saturday

In the morning, we socialized with the many relatives who had come to town for the service. All my mother’s four siblings and their spouses, plus her cousin Sue, and my cousins Blake and Emily and Emily’s almost-eleven-year-old son Josiah were there. Some of them were camping at nearby Emigrant Lake and others were staying with mom’s friends, so no one had to spring for a hotel, even though my family was taking up all of Mom’s guest space. Whenever we all got together it was a big crowd, and deeply divided one, politically speaking, so I was grateful that everyone kept quiet on that topic. It’s not always that way with my mom’s family so I didn’t take it for granted.

The airline delivered our wayward luggage in the afternoon, after many phone calls from Beth, and June was reunited with her stuffed monkey Muffin. (His absence troubled her more than that of her clothes.)

We had a family birthday party for Sara’s daughter Lan-Lan who just turned four (she’d have a party with friends the next day). There were many presents—art supplies were a popular choice—all received with enthusiasm. “Oh, my goodness!” Lan-Lan exclaimed with each new package.  The two big gifts were two light green, kid-sized, metal patio chairs and a red wagon. Lan-Lan wanted a ride in the wagon right away so Sara took her around the block and June and I tagged along. Then we had cake and ice cream.

The whole crowd went out for pizza and we took over a long row of tables. Beth and I split one with mushrooms, truffle oil, and microgreens. Lan-Lan got restless during a longish wait for food, and Sara, Dave, June, and Josiah (in varying combinations) took turns taking her out on the patio to play hide and seek. While we were eating, Sara asked me if we had any plans for the next day and I said, “Other than your daughter’s birthday party and our stepfather’s memorial service?” and she said, “Yeah, other than that.” So we made plans to go to the playground in Lithia Park in between those events.

Sunday

While Sara, Dave, Lan-Lan, and her friends were hunting Easter eggs and playing pin the tail on the bunny at her party, the rest of the group went out for brunch, and after that Sara, Lan-Lan, June, and I went to the playground. When I saw the big rope climbing structure June has enjoyed on previous trips to Ashland, I said, “It’s a shame you can’t climb that now,” because she’s still in a lace-up ankle brace on one foot and an orthopedic shoe on the other. Can you guess how this story ends? With June at the very top, while Lan-Lan circled the perimeter at the bottom, wanting to go higher and having to content herself with waiting until she’s older.

Sara, June, and Lan-Lan also played Switch, a game they invented then last time we were in Ashland, two Christmases ago. Sara and June push Lan-Lan on the swings from behind and in front and then someone says, “Switch!” and they change places. Sometimes one of them will say, “I feel a switch coming on,” to build the suspense. It’s as hilarious now as it was when Lan-Lan was two and a half, even with June walking instead of running to her new place. And now Lan-Lan will say, “I feel a switch!” to get them to do it.

The memorial service was in the evening. It was held in the tasting room of a winery, surrounded by pear orchards in bloom and mountains. There were beautiful views from every window in the room. The room sat sixty at tables of various sizes and several more people sat at the bar. There were spring flowers, daffodils and tulips my aunt Peggy had arranged, on all the tables. She also designed the program and helped Mom with a lot of details of the ceremony (she arrived a couple days before we did). Josiah greeted people at the door and asked them to sign the guest book. There was a slideshow of photos of Jim and a blown-up photo of him on an easel near the bar. Peggy distributed blank cards and markers so people could share memories of Jim for Mom to paste into the guest book. I settled on a story about how when Sara and I were teens we used to keep a tally of how many of his corny jokes were actually funny, complete with fractions for partial credit, and how he was always a good sport about this ribbing from his new stepdaughters.

My uncle Doug made the opening remarks and introduced speakers. He’s a retired minister so officiating comes naturally to him. He spoke about Jim as a brother-in-law (he’s married to my mother’s sister Diane) and as a friend. Then Sara gave the eulogy, which began with a line she ran by me at the playground earlier in the day, “Jim M. could be a real pain in the butt.” (I’d approved it, but suggested she soften the wording from “ass.”) She then described how a simple question like “Should I get snow tires?” could lead to a dissertation on the history of rubber. She went on to describe his helpful, friendly, outgoing nature, noting that it was impossible to get anywhere on time with him because he always wanted to talk to everyone he met.

I was up next. Because one thing Jim and I had in common, besides a love for my mother was a love for the ocean, so I read this poem, by Pablo Neruda. I chose it for it mostly for the first two stanzas:

Ocean, if you were to give, a measure, a ferment, a fruit
of your gifts and destructions, into my hand,
I would choose your far-off repose, your contour of steel,
your vigilant spaces of air and darkness,
and the power of your white tongue,
that shatters and overthrows columns,
breaking them down to your proper purity.

Not the final breaker, heavy with brine,
that thunders onshore, and creates
the silence of sand, that encircles the world,
but the inner spaces of force,
the naked power of the waters,
the immoveable solitude, brimming with lives.
It is Time perhaps, or the vessel filled
with all motion, pure Oneness,
that death cannot touch, the visceral green
of consuming totality.

Next June spoke about Jim and sang this song. The chorus goes:

Dig deep and don’t be afraid
Dig deep and live
Dig deep and don’t be afraid
Dig deep and live
Everyday

The song seemed appropriate because at Peggy’s suggestion, my mom had deemed the service “a celebration of life” and asked people to wear spring colors instead of black. Six years of musical theater camp and a few months of voice lessons paid off here. People kept coming up to June and us afterward to tell us how impressed they were with her voice and her poise, because at the beginning she was a little teary but then she centered herself and threw herself into the song.

After June sang, my aunt Peggy and Uncle Darryl read original poetry, “Words from Jim,” and “Our Love is Not Transcendental.” Darryl’s poem was about memories of Jim during good times and during his last days, and Peggy’s was about love over long years of marriage. (My mom’s siblings have a lot of experience with this. Mom and Jim were married almost thirty-three years and being a second marriage it was the shortest of the bunch. My uncle Larry and Aunt Berni have been married fifty-five years.)

Several more friends and family members, including Mom’s brothers Steve and Larry, and Jim’s nephew Chuck, spoke.  The service ended with six members of Mom’s peace choir singing a Nigerian folk song about sending the dead on their way. It was lovely.

There was a dinner buffet with lasagna, chicken cacciatore, salad, bread, and three kinds of dessert (cupcakes, brownies, and baklava). I made sure to get a picture of Mom with all her siblings, because they aren’t all together very often. Mom said it went just as she wanted.

Monday

The next day was hard for Mom as her siblings, brothers and sisters-in-law, niece, nephew, and grandnephew all left after a short morning visit and she no longer had ceremony preparations to occupy her. Before Jim had his stroke, she used to watch Lan-Lan on Monday and Friday afternoons and she’d decided to resume after the ceremony, but it turned out she didn’t have to do much other than pick her up from preschool because June entertained Lan-Lan for four hours straight. When it was over June said it was “exhausting” and that she never wanted to hear the word “why” again. But thanks to June, Mom and I could hole up in her room and have a long talk.

June and I went with Mom to get Lan-Lan from her school and I enjoyed seeing it. I have such fond memories of my kids’ preschool and it had a similar vibe. When we arrived, the kids were sitting at an outside table finishing up a lunch of chicken, broccoli, and rice from wooden bowls. Then they got out their cloth napkins and sang a napkin song, designed to get them to wipe their faces.

The yard was small and mostly covered in mulch, with a little garden plot with lettuce growing in it, and a tree house. It’s a Waldorf school, so it’s just a little further down the crunchy scale than the Purple School, if one can judge from so brief a glimpse. (One detail in support of this thesis: one of the one younger siblings at pick-up was named Magic.)

It was Dave’s last day in town (after a two-month stay with Sara helping out during Jim’s health crisis and in the aftermath of his death and with the rental cottage Sara was having built in her yard) so I suggested we have dinner with Sara, Dave, and Lan-Lan. We went out for Chinese. Lan-Lan was overcome with excitement at the prospect of dumplings and she let everyone, including the waitress, know it. Sara and Dave have been dating for almost two years, but we’d never met him before this trip so it was good to have a chance to spend a little time with him in a somewhat smaller group.

Tuesday

We thought we’d said goodbye to Dave, but he delayed his departure by a day to put some finishing touches on the cottage. Jim, Sara, and Dave worked on it for months and it’s turned out nicely. It’s an airy little two-bedroom house painted a cheery yellow. The idea is Sara will rent it until Mom needs to be closer to her, and then Mom will move into it.

So the day after our goodbye-to-Dave dinner, we had a goodbye-to-Dave lunch, where June opened her birthday presents of clothes from Sara, and then Sara and Dave went back to her house, while Mom, Beth, the kids and I proceeded to a tea house so June could have bubble tea. Mom was taking her out shopping for a birthday present and June loves bubble tea so it made sense to start there. She got a hibiscus-mango tea that was quite tasty, but everyone else was too full from lunch to order anything. There was a branch of the tea and spice shop I frequent in Rehoboth across the street and I spoiled Beth’s plan to sneak in and get me some loose hazelnut and chocolate tea for my upcoming birthday by getting the idea first and buying it for myself.

Then we went browsing for Mom’s present for June. She settled on a Harry Potter cookbook. We were going to get hair dye, too, so Sara could dye June’s hair the next day but we didn’t have time, because we were going to Beauty and the Beast. Other than the central problem of any version of this story—which Noah identified as the fact that Belle suffers from Stockholm syndrome—I thought it was well done. Emma Watson was well cast, the other actors and the effects were good and they didn’t mess much with the music.

On the way home, June endured a lecture from both moms about how you shouldn’t get into a relationship with someone who mistreats you in hopes that your love can change him. When that was finished, we discussed which part she might try out for this summer at musical theater camp when they do the play. The beast? That would be casting against type as she’s usually one of the smallest kids at camp. (The director keeps shifting the age range up so it’s largely the same group of kids, which includes the director’s two daughters and June’s always at the young end). Mrs. Potts? Chip? Lumière? Something that utilizes her gift for comic timing would be good, the adults agreed. Once home, she shut herself up in her room and sang songs from the movie for a long time.

That evening Sara threw an impromptu party in the cottage to christen it before renters move in this weekend. Mom, June, and I went, met some of Sara’s friends and neighbors and said a third goodbye to Dave.

Wednesday

In the morning, Beth and June took a walk so Beth could admire the mountains that ring Ashland. We’d hoped to make it up to Crater Lake on this trip, but it was overcast and Mom says it’s prettier on sunny days when you can really see the blue of the water, so we didn’t go.

One thing we did do was see a play. Ashland’s a theater town and though this was our third trip, this was the first time we’d been to the theater there. We’d hoped to see Julius Caesar because Noah just read it for school, but it wasn’t playing any of the days we were free, so went to Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. It’s about Korean and Korean-American identity, and barriers between people, generations, countries, myth and reality, and the living and the dead. I recommend it if you’re going to be in Ashland any time between now and October.

Sara came over to Mom’s house later in the afternoon to dye June’s hair (we picked up the dye before we went to the play). She gave her mermaid green streaks in front and red ones on the sides of her head. There was blue in the back, too, but it came out fainter than they intended and it’s hard to see what with the fading dye that was already there. I think the red streaks looks nice, though, and it’s a new color for her.

We went over to Sara’s house after the dye job and made tacos. Lan-Lan’s babysitter was there giving her a bath as we arrive and soon there was a tiny streaker in the house. She did consent to put on underpants to dine. While we ate, she kept up a running commentary about how she is bigger than baby but June is bigger than her. She’s very chatty and even more full of energy than my kids at that age, though it’s been a long time since I’ve had a four year old, so maybe I just don’t remember. We said our goodbyes to Lan-Lan with a big group hug and then went back to Mom’s house where Mom, June and I watched a PBS documentary about wildlife conservation in Puerto Rico after Beth fixed a glitch with the television. (Earlier in the day she fixed Mom’s lazy Susan, too.) As we watched it, Sara called to see if she’d said goodbye, because she couldn’t remember if she had said it when we left. Beth joked that she must want as many goodbyes as Dave got.

Thursday

Mom drove us to the Medford airport in the morning and we said our curbside goodbyes, but not for too long, because Mom, Sara, and Lan-Lan are all coming to Rehoboth Beach to spend a week with us in late June. I’m looking forward to it. Time with family is always precious, but even more so right now while we’re all especially aware of how unpredictable life is.