A Weekend in the Woods

Friday

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

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

Four Road Trips and a Bus Ride

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

Road Trip #1

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

Road Trips #2-3

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

Home Alone

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

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

Road Trip #4

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

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

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

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

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

Home Together

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

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

Bus Ride

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

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

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

August and Everything After

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

Sunday: Camp and Cousins 

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

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

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

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

Monday: Lake Cayuga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: On Our Way Back Home

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

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

After

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

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

Party of Nine

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

Friday 

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 

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

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

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

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

Friday 

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

Texts from Colombia: An Adventure

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

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

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

4/5, 5:51 p.m.

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

4/6, 1:01 a.m.

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

4/6, 6:34 a.m.

Beth: You didn’t get much sleep

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

Beth: Sounds amazing!

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

4/6, 2:11 p.m.

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

Beth: Sorry!

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

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

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

Beth: Have fun!

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

Beth: No, but maybe by 9?

4/6, 10:32 p.m.

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

4/7, 9:18 a.m.

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

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

4/9, 5:51 p.m

Me: Que hiciste hoy?

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

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

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

4/9, 5:53 p.m.

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

Beth: Sunshine power!

4/10, 6:59 a.m.

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

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

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

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

North: 18

4/9, 6:37 p.m.

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

4/9, 9:08 p.m.

North: Zoë got me a kinder egg

Beth: Nice!

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

4/11, 7:45 a.m.

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

Beth: Good for you for eating it

4/11, 10:05 a.m.

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

Beth: Yes

North: My hands never burn it’s weird

4/11, 3:32 p.m.

North: Guess what I got you?

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

North: You guessed it!

Beth: Thanks!

North: They had no small bags so

Beth: Wow that might put your luggage overweight!

4/11, 5:39 p.m.

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

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

North: It seemed dark lol but outside of it yeah

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

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

4/11, 8:38 p.m.

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

Beth: Was Dumbo dubbed into Spanish

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/12, 6:48 a.m.

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

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

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

11:16 a.m.

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

4/12, 7:03 p.m.

Me: Did you survive the hike?

North: Barely

Me: What kind of terrain?

North: Tall grass, it was wonderful for crutches

Me: And did you dance at the dance?

North: Nope

Me: What’s the plan for tomorrow?

North: Idk

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

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

4/12, 9:15 p.m.

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

Beth: You can start tonight!

Beth: Did you go on the mountain hike?

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

4/13, 6:06 p.m.

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

4/14, 8:42 a.m.

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

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

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

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

4/14, 8:34 p.m.

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

4/15 1:05 p.m. 

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

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

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

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

4/15, 5:30 p.m.

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

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

Suburban Maryland Wants to Be Western New York, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suburban Maryland Wants to Be Western New York, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Cabin in the Big Woods

Saturday: Arrival

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Settling In

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday: Christmas Eve

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Christmas Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Boxing Day

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Departure

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

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

Friday and Saturday: Home

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

From Twelve to Fifty-Two

At the trans kids’ parents’ support group on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving people were talking about holiday plans and extended family who were less than supportive of their kids. When asked, Beth and I reported that we were spending Thanksgiving at the beach, just the four of us (and Christmas with an accepting grandmother). Some people were a little jealous. We’ve spent four of the past five Thanksgivings in Rehoboth. It’s a nice tradition that certainly inspires thankfulness.

Thanksgiving

I was out the door of the rental house headed for the beach around 3:30, about an hour after we’d arrived. (I was disciplined enough to unpack, get food in the fridge, and make our bed first.) I promised to return between 4:30 and 5:00 to help put the finishing touches on the dinner we—well, mostly Beth—had made at home the day before and transported with us.

I swung by Café a-Go-Go for a café con leche before I hit the beach. It was cold, 31 degrees. But my coffee was warm and the late afternoon sun was turning the dry beach grass gold, the sea silver, and the clouds and sea foam faintly rosy.

After a short stay on the beach, I headed back to the house to trim and roast Brussels sprouts and to heat up the brandied sweet potatoes. Beth had everything else under control and after we’d made our traditional centerpieces (turkeys made from apples with feathers consisting of raisins and dried cranberries stuck on toothpicks and olives for heads), we sat down to feast on the aforementioned vegetables, plus a tofurkey roast, stuffing, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, cranberry sauce, and rolls. Later we ate pumpkin and apple pie and watched an episode of Blackish.

Beth’s Birthday & Black Friday

Beth turned fifty-two the next day and we brought her presents while she was still in bed. The kids got her toffee and a chocolate coffeecake. I got her gift certificates from AFI and the promise of a dessert date. We ate the coffee cake with breakfast before North and I headed out to Christmas shop.  People always assume we’re headed for the outlets when we say we’re Christmas shopping in Rehoboth and while we do sometimes visit them, we mostly stick to the downtown shops. The bookstore and the tea and spice shop are favorites of ours.

Actually, for me it was more watching North shop than doing any of my own. They were a shopping whirlwind, getting all of their shopping done in one day, most of it that morning. Our last stop was the bakery for Beth’s birthday cake, which I’d pre-ordered. It was a chocolate cake with coffee frosting, which is what I usually make for Beth’s birthday but since I wasn’t going to be the one decorating, I thought it I should have the bakers do something beyond my capabilities—so I asked for a playing card made out of frosting, specifically the Queen of Hearts. Can you guess why? It was because there are fifty-two cards in a deck and she’s the queen of my heart. (North had known about this plan for a few weeks and they were quite taken with it.) It was a long hike out to the bakery, which is up near Route 1, and then back to the house so I was glad to have North with me to wear the backpack full of gifts while I carried the cake box. We even managed not to slip and fall on the ice-slicked sidewalk near the canal.

We had Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch, followed by birthday cake and ice cream. Then Noah, who’d been at the house that morning doing Logic homework, came shopping with me and North. After that, I took a solo walk on the beach and saw a ragged V of geese flying south before going back to the house to collect everyone and walk back to the beach for our Christmas card photo shoot. Beth used Noah’s camera to take pictures of the kids standing on a jetty and some of them jumping or doing cartwheels (that was just North) on the sand.

From the beach we walked to Grotto, where we had pizza, and then to the bandstand for the holiday singalong and tree lighting. It was still pretty cold, probably near freezing, so a half hour seemed about right for this activity. Beth had a hot chocolate in a thermos she’d procured earlier from Starbucks for her free birthday drink. She was pleased it had stayed warm. The kids tried to get hot chocolate at a nearby coffeeshop but the line was crazy so they gave up.

The singalong started with “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and then proceeded through the usual selection of secular Christmas songs, plus “Let it Go,” (which we all agree is not a Christmas song). While we were singing “The Christmas Song,” when it got to “kids from one to ninety-two, I nudged North and sang, “kids from twelve to fifty-two” instead, because that’s us and it’s the last year it will ever scan because it’s North’s last year with a one syllable age.

We walked home via the boardwalk. The moon was either full or close to it and it made a gorgeous white column on the black water. Back at the house, we warmed up with leftover pumpkin pie (and cake) and inaugurated our Christmas special viewing with A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas because those are Beth’s favorites.

It was a nice day, with the tail end of Thanksgiving, the beginning of the Christmas season, and Beth’s birthday all rolled up into one. Beth says she likes it best when her birthday falls on the day after Thanksgiving. (It’s usually before.)

Saturday

The next day wasn’t quite as busy. I knew it was going to rain in the afternoon so after breakfast at Victoria’s (a boardwalk hotel restaurant), I got in some more shopping, and then settled myself on the sand with an apple-carrot-beet juice to drink while I watched the choppy, gray waves. It was much warmer than the previous two days, in the fifties, so it was pleasant to sit still and just be.

North and I met up for lunch at the Greene Turtle, which I patronize mainly for the view. It’s on the boardwalk, one story up, and we got a corner table, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling window on two sides, so I could watch the panorama of boardwalk, beach, and ocean while I ate my apple-pecan salad and split an order of mozzarella sticks with North. Afterward we took a walk on the boardwalk and beach and I took them to a juice bar for an açai bowl. While there I realized I didn’t have my debit card and North exclaimed, “Again?” because I’d just finished telling them a story about how I’d lost one at the Greene Turtle years ago. So I gave North some cash and went back the restaurant in hopes of retrieving it. And luckily, they had it and they didn’t even make me feel like an idiot, saying cheerfully they had a pile of them in the office as people left them on the tables every day. By the time I left the restaurant the second time, the rain had started, only sprinkles, but it was supposed to get heavy so I headed back to the house.

We spent a cozy afternoon variously playing Connect-4, reading King Lear and Six of Crows and the New Yorker, and working on college applications. Noah sent off his Ithaca application and started his Boston University one. By dinnertime it was pouring rain and windy, but Beth and North braved the elements to pick up takeout from Grandpa Mac’s. We ate our pasta bowls in front of the television, watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Sunday

In the morning we packed and had breakfast at Egg (where for some reason I was the only one to order their scrumptious pumpkin-pecan French toast) and came back and packed some more, and left the house. Noah helped clean out the fridge by eating ice cream, garlic bread, cranberry sauce, and drinking milk and eggnog. It’s handy sometimes having a teenage boy.

The kids headed for a hotel lounge where they could squat and watch Dr. Who on a laptop while Beth and I went to sit on a bench on the boardwalk and enjoy a lovely sunny day. Beth read while I wrote most of this blog post by hand in a composition book because I am cutting edge like that.

Being slightly more up-to-date than me, North had been vlogging our trip all weekend, constantly recording themselves narrating what they were doing. I find it a little odd, but who I am to talk, really?

After I finished writing I took a short walk on the beach and then we all met up on the boardwalk having acquired fries, pizza, and a smoothie for a makeshift lunch. (I also fetched cheese, fruit, and water from the nearby car.) After a trip to Candy Kitchen, the kids and I went down to the water and got our feet wet. They accomplished this by wading barefoot into the water. I was wearing rainboots but I might as well not have been because the very first wave went over the tops and soaked my feet. As I removed the boots, turned them upside down, and peeled my sodden socks off my feet, I regarded the holes in them and decided to just throw them in a trashcan on the boardwalk.

As we drove home, I wondered how often they empty those trashcans off season and how long that little part of me will still be there, near the sea and the sand.

We Are Headed Northwest: College Tours, Installment #4

The Friday before our big summer college road trip Beth left work early and met me in Silver Spring where we caught a matinee of Desert Hearts at the American Film Institute. The timing seemed serendipitous because we first saw this movie as college students at Oberlin and Oberlin was on the itinerary of our upcoming trip. How did we get from students to a prospective student’s parents? Tempus fugit.

Sunday: Takoma Park, MD to Camp Highlight (Central PA) to Wheeling, WV

We left Sunday morning and drove to central Pennsylvania. Our first stop was Camp Highlight, where we were reunited (briefly) with our younger child who was going to spend a week with Beth’s mom while we were on the road. North was happy to see us but sad to leave all their new camp friends. When I asked if they were ready to go, they said, “I have to hug all my friends,” so that took a while.

As we waited, one of the counselors told me “You’re doing it right with this one,” after relaying the story of a kindness North did another camper who was feeling left out on Twin Day. (North managed to get their scant hair into pigtails, which is how the girl wore her hair, so they could be twins.)

We had lunch in nearby diner, then settled in for the long drive to Wheeling. During the ride we listened to North talk about camp, and sing camp songs, and tell the camp ghost story until they wound down, leaned against the car door looking worn out and disappeared into their headphones. Then we played a Pride playlist Beth found and the Desert Hearts soundtrack.

It was almost nine o’clock when we got to Beth’s mom’s house where her aunt Carole and cousin Sean were waiting for us. Beth’s mom had made a blueberry-raspberry pie, but I wasn’t feeling well so I went to bed around ten while everyone else stayed up to talk and eat.

Monday: Wheeling, WV to Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) to Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH) 

I had a slice of the pie—it was delicious—for breakfast in the morning, along with a couple veggie sausages. After saying goodbye to North a mere twenty-one hours after camp pickup, Beth, Noah and I hit the road mid-morning and drove to Pittsburgh.  Carnegie Mellon was our first college stop. There were no organized tours available that day because it was orientation for first-year students, but we walked around a little, took in the campus, picked up some materials from the computer science department, and had lunch in a noodle bar in the computer science building. Unlike Emerson, which kind of melts into a block of office buildings near Boston Commons, Carnegie Mellon has a more traditional campus feel, with pretty red brick buildings from the early twentieth century and a quad. Without someone selling the school to us, I didn’t feel I got a good sense of it, but as I ate, I tried to imagine Noah eating noodles in the sunny atrium after his morning algorithms class.

One thing we all noticed is that the campus had a slightly unfriendly vibe. The two different servers we encountered in the noodle bar were gruff and unhelpful. Then we sat in the admissions office a long time, going over our materials and maps and trying to decide what parts of campus to visit, not really needing any help, but given how long we lingered I thought it was odd the woman behind the desk never asked if we needed help. I’d expect admission staff to be the most friendly people on campus. But it’s possible we were all reading too much into small interactions because there was no presentation or tour to focus our attention on the school’s good points.

From Pittsburgh we drove to Oberlin, stopping for Dairy Queen along the way and listening to a playlist of Billboard hits from 1984. This was the year Beth started college and the year I was Noah’s age, so it seemed a fitting soundtrack for our journey to our alma mater. We checked into our AirBnB, an apartment in the back of a blue-gray Victorian house with dark blue and cream trim and an interesting history. It was built as an investment for a college President (Fairchild for you Obies) and one of the early owners was Conservatory director (Rice). It was also a dorm in the 1960s and then faculty apartments.

After we settled in, we took Noah on our own version of the walking tour, not a complete one because he’s been to Oberlin a few times already and there would be the official one the next day. But we took his picture outside of his namesake dorm, as we always do, and I directed his attention to points of interest (dorms where I’d lived, class buildings where I’d taken classes). “How do you remember all this?” he wanted to know, but the classes I took all those decades ago seem like not that long ago sometimes, and never more than when I’m at Oberlin.

We had dinner at a fusion restaurant that’s now on the old site of Campus Restaurant, where I’d worked as a busser and a waitress. I had goat cheese and chive ravioli in a sweet and sour sauce. It was very good and very different from anything you could get at Campus, whose idea of vegetarian fare was lettuce and tomato on a hamburger bun. (Remember the Meatless Fred, anyone?) Next we got dessert and ate it on a bench in Tappan Square, listening to the cicadas and watching dark fall slowly among the stately tall trees.

Tuesday: Oberlin, OH to Niagara Falls, NY 

Noah slept in a bit the next day so I sat on the back porch and wrote. It was cool and raining on and off and pleasant to be enclosed there. We had a late breakfast at another restaurant that wasn’t there when we were in college, but it was the kind of place where you can get smoked tempeh instead of bacon with your pancakes, so we felt right at home. Our table was right by the rain-streaked window, so I explained the term “lake effect” to Noah.

Next we showed Noah the house where I was living the summer Beth and I started dating and where we had our first kiss and the movie theater down the street where we saw Raising Arizona on our second date, the very next night. Noah was polite enough to pretend to be interested. We headed to the library, where we stopped by the computing center where Beth worked—both as a student and full-time for a year while she waited for me to graduate—and to the scholar studies students doing honors projects are assigned, though I couldn’t remember which one was mine.

Our library tour complete, we settled into the womb chairs to read or use electronic devices until it was time for the presentation.

The presentation highlighted some of what makes Oberlin special—the Conservatory, its active arts scene, student-run housing and dining co-ops, ExCo (the Experimental College, which consists of student-taught classes). I could walk around Oberlin’s lovely and architecturally eclectic campus all day, the tour was fun for me. Beth was hoping we’d get to see Noah Hall (where we met) and she even asked the tour guide if he could get us in there when it seemed we might be the only family in his group, though eventually three other families joined us. But his keycard was only programmed for one dorm (right next door to Noah Hall!).

We’d had breakfast late and no lunch so we had either a very late lunch or a very early dinner at Lorenzo’s, a pizza place that was open during our college days, and which I remembered with some fondness. It was fun to eat there again.

It was later than we intended when we hit the road and almost ten by the time we checked into our hotel room near Niagara Falls. We could see the end of the nightly firework show from our window. 

Wednesday: Niagara Falls, NY to Rochester Institute of Technology to Trumansburg, NY 

We wanted to see Niagara Falls before we needed to leave for RIT and it was a struggle getting out of the hotel on time, so much so that as we were pulling out of the hotel lot and I realized I’d left a really nice insulated water bottle in the room, I decided not to say anything about it and just keep going. (I found a replacement at the Niagara Falls gift shop and considered it $18 well spent.)

I’ve never been to Niagara Falls before and it’s quite impressive, though it didn’t look like my mental picture of it. We wandered around and viewed the various rapids and falls and walked out on the observation deck, but we didn’t have time for the boat ride or to take the elevator down to the series of decks near the bottom of the falls.

It was close to our information session time when we got to RIT and the campus is big and kind of confusing, so we only had time for quick snacks from a convenience store in lieu of lunch and we just made it to the session in time.

At the information session, we heard the things you usually hear at these events. One interesting thing about RIT is that most majors require several co-ops (full-time paid employment the school helps you find) interspersed throughout your education. It makes most undergraduate degrees take five years rather than four to complete, but you don’t pay tuition when you’re not on campus, and you graduate with almost a year of work experience.

The school is strong in both computer science and film, which appeals to Noah. He usually plays his cards close to his chest for a while after these visits, but while we were still there he said cheerfully, “All the schools seem good. I want to go to them all,” which was not a comment directly about RIT, but presumably something about the school inspired him to say it. I told him that was good because he’d be happy with his choices once he knew where he’d been admitted. Beth and I both noticed he seemed to be in a good mood there and he asked to have his picture taken with the statue of the mascot (a tiger).

The tour itself was long (an hour and a half) and tiring after having hiked around the Niagara in the morning. It looks a lot like UMBC, a lot of rectangular red brick buildings. They were both built in the 1960s, though RIT is older, having relocated from another campus in downtown Rochester. There’s not much green space, though there’s some in the residential areas. There are some decorative touches—most notably sculpture. There’s also a series of underground tunnels connecting buildings, but we didn’t get to go into them. It was orientation week so there were first-year students all over in matching t-shirts. Apparently, some schools can handle prospective tours and orientation at the same time.

We were pretty hungry after the tour and the main dining hall opened for dinner at four, so we headed over there and ate. The dining hall was not as pretty at the one at St. Mary’s, but it did have a whole wall of windows that looked out on some woods. Beth said it would be pretty in the fall.

Next we drove to our AirBnB near Ithaca. We got there about 7:45 and it was nice to have an evening to relax, do laundry, and write. Beth ran out for a few groceries so we could have breakfast at the house. 

Thursday: Trumansburg, NY to Ithaca College and Back 

The next morning we drove to Ithaca College, where we had not only the usual information session and tour, but another tour of the School of Communications, where we saw a bunch of film and television studios. Noah said later he was glad we went on the add-on tour because he wasn’t that interested before seeing the studios and hearing about the major in Emerging Media, which would combine his interests in film and computers. By the end of the second tour, he was quite interested. Like RIT, Ithaca is an older school that relocated in the 1960s, but it has more green space and architectural variety. Like Oberlin, it’s a selective liberal arts college with a strong music program. It started out as a conservatory and the School of Music is the biggest school within the college, with the School of Communications second.

After being on our feet for the better part of the three-and-a-half hour program, we were hungry and tired and we considered getting some food on campus, but decided to head into town because Ithaca is known for its restaurants. We had lunch at a ramen/dumpling place. Thus fortified, we took a hike to Taughannock Falls, “the tallest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains,” according to a brochure at the AirBnB. It’s taller than Niagara, but much narrower. Beth, who is fond of waterfalls, called it “a little piece of paradise” and it was very pretty.

Back at the house we relaxed and read until dinnertime when we ate at Moosewood Restaurant. I’ve been cooking from several different Moosewood cookbooks for thirty-plus years and I even recognized the striped awning from one of the covers. It was a beautiful, mild evening so we ate outside under said awning. We started with a plate of local cheeses and salads. My entrée was a ragout of summer vegetables on saffron whole-wheat cous cous with grated Gruyere on top. Beth and I both had the iconic fudge brownie (served every day since 1973 according to the menu) a la mode.

Friday: Trumansburg, NY to Altoona, PA

We stayed in Ithaca part of the next day, leaving the house late in the morning and picking up provisions for a picnic lunch at the local food co-op. Do you love going to co-ops and natural food stores in new towns? I do. It feels so much more like an adventure than going to the co-op at home, which basically feels like grocery shopping. Anyway, we got cheese and crackers, and curried tempeh salad, and tortilla chips to go with a yellow watermelon, which our host left for us at the Airbnb. Beth and I got chocolate cookies with chocolate and vanilla frosting in the yin-yang pattern, sort of a hippie black-and-white cookie and Noah got a brownie.

Before we ate, we went to the swimming hole at Robert Treman State Park. It’s right under a waterfall and there’s a diving board and a lifeguard. I would have jumped off the diving board but the water was very cold, between sixty and sixty-five degrees according to three different chalkboards we saw in the area; I couldn’t bring myself to wade in past the bottom of my ribcage. Beth wishes it to be known she went in the deepest and stayed in the longest. After our swim, we ate our picnic lunch and hit the road.

We drove to Altoona, where we stayed the night. I told Noah to find us the best pizza in Altoona and he might have just googled that phrase because we ended up getting takeout from a place called Bestway Pizza. After dinner I swam for almost an hour in the hotel pool. I’d had a dizzy spell earlier in the evening and during the swim I started to feel sick to my stomach, so after a quick shower, I went straight to bed.

Saturday: Altoona, PA to Wheeling, WV 

In the morning, I felt better. We had breakfast in the hotel and drove to Wheeling. On the way we finished Making Obama, a six-part podcast about Obama’s early political career we’d been listening to on and off throughout the week. I thought hearing his voice so often would make me cry, but it didn’t, so I guess I’m tougher than I thought. I do recommend it, if you think you can stand thinking about the sheer sadness of how things turned out after Obama. (We listened to a lot of podcasts on this trip, mostly Making Obama and The Truth, a podcast of radio play-style fiction with a Twilight Zone feel, which was one of Noah’s contributions. We also listened to a couple episodes each of podcasts of people playing text adventures and The Moth, plus single episodes of a few more. Everyone was generally pleased with each other’s choices except I had the bad luck to offer the group the only gory episode of Spooked that I’ve ever heard—I swear it’s usually very gently spooky—and Beth didn’t care for that.)

When we got to Beth’s mom’s house YaYa and North and Beth’s aunt Carole were out to lunch so we had our picnic and pizza leftovers and read until they returned. When they got back Carole shared the news that she’s going to be a great grandmother again and we saw videos of North on the rock climbing wall at the pool. When you get to the top, you just drop off into the water. It looks fun. We also saw all the clothes and school supplies YaYa bought for North. I’d already bought North some clothes, so it’s possible they may be all set for school. Thanks, YaYa!

We spent the rest of the day socializing. A couple of YaYa’s friends came by in the afternoon. They were in town for a seventy-fifth birthday party their high school class was holding (because they all turn seventy-five this year). So in the evening, YaYa went to that and Beth’s high school friend Michelle, who’s recently relocated to the area from New York, came by and we got Chinese takeout and got caught up on each other’s lives. Michelle’s come home to be closer to her mother and she’s going to be in a show in Pittsburgh this fall.

Sunday: Wheeling, WV to Takoma Park, MD

We left Wheeling mid-morning and made the long, last drive home. The kids couldn’t watch Dr. Who together as planned because the iPad was out of battery and no one had a charger for it. And Beth and I had run out of podcasts, so it was a quiet drive.

Post-Trip

We’ve been home four days now. The kids had a pediatrician appointment; North invited Xavier for dinner one night and met Zoë at the playground another day; I took North to Chuck E Cheese for lunch one day; and North had two audition coaching sessions at Highwood plus a rehearsal for a performance Highwood students are having at the Kennedy Center on Saturday. It’s a preview of songs from the upcoming season’s shows. Noah had a drum lesson and he’s been finishing up his summer homework—reading Johnny Got His Gun, writing about it, and making a podcast of interviews with families of kids who went to the kids’ co-operative preschool back in the day.

School starts Tuesday. It will be a slightly bittersweet back to school, I think, because it will be Noah’s last one while still living at home. But I am happy to have had this trip with him, both for the time alone with my first-born, and because it really did help him narrow down and rank his list. Ithaca and R.I.T. are his current favorites, but he’s still considering Champlain and Oberlin, and he thinks he needs more information on Carnegie Mellon and UMBC because he didn’t get a full tour at either of those schools. Because UMBC is only forty-five minutes away, we’re headed back there in a week and a half. Emerson and St. Mary’s are off the list.

Someone I know who just sent her son to college advised me to cherish every minute of Noah’s senior year. I’m sure I won’t manage that. It’s a tall order for any year and there will be stress and frustration, but I am going to try to enjoy this last year with my boy at home, because I know it won’t come around again.