Before the Blackout

My friend Megan and I had a conversation last week we have multiple times every summer, about how complicated and crazy-making summer is for at-home parents. The main difficulty is that every day is different; there’s no routine. Megan said she recently spent two hours putting together a calendar of day camps and babysitting and appointments just so she could have it all straight. I have a calendar like that, too, just for summer, and even so I still get confused sometimes.

Last week was particularly logistically challenging, or it seemed that way at the time, because June had her first day camp. It was the shortest camp she’s attending this year, at three hours a day, and also the most inconveniently located.  But I signed her up because it was an art camp and she loves art, and because Megan’s daughter Talia was attending, and as June says, “Talia is one of my good friends.” It was fun for her seeing Talia every day and they also had two after-camp play dates, one at Megan’s house and one at a nearby playground. Both girls seemed pretty happy with the arrangements.

Beth drove June to camp three mornings out of five, and Megan pitched in with some rides home and one ride to camp so I only had to take June once and fetch her twice.  I’m grateful to both Beth and Megan for making it possible for me to spend some time with Noah and get a little work done while June was gone in the mornings. If I’d had to take her and bring her home every day I would have spent so much time on buses and at bus stops there would have been no point in my even going home. But with every single day a different transportation plan, I craved consistency.

Adding to this, Beth has also been out of town on business a lot recently, with a four-day trip earlier in the month and a two-day trip last week. These trips are easier than they were when the kids were younger, but of course, we miss her when she’s gone.

So I was feeling unsettled even before the heat wave cum four-day power outage we just experienced.  And I wasn’t the only one. When school let out, June was positively mournful.  She wrote in her diary, “I do not want summer break to be a real ting.” And she drew up a set of instructions she called, “Infermashan you need to be a good student.”  (See photo.) The day we got her summer math packet she completed half of it. I secured five play dates for her in the first few weeks after school ended, but she still missed her friends, especially before she started to go to camp last week.

As for Noah, after a fun week at YaYa’s house, he was casting around trying to remember how to amuse himself when he’s not at school or doing homework all the time. He said he was bored frequently, but he had some interesting projects going: a web site about his travels around West Virginia with YaYa  (they took a lot of road trips), a CD he and June are making of themselves singing, a mystery story they’re writing together along with the script for a movie that’s going to star the Playmobil castle people. I reminded him he has a lot of toys and kits from his birthday and even Christmas he’s never opened so last week  he spent a good bit of one afternoon on the porch breaking open geodes with a hammer.  He spent last Friday at Beth’s office doing data entry for her. (His summer drum lessons started today. It will be good for him to have at least that much structure.)

We also went on couple short family road trips.  Beth and June spent a weekend camping in Western Maryland after they delivered Noah to YaYa. I stayed at home. It was the first time I’d been apart from Beth and the kids overnight since I went to visit my father when he was dying two and a half years ago and the only time I’ve been alone in my own house overnight since Noah was born. I read and gardened and cleaned the house and had dinner at a restaurant alone.  It was a strange feeling, good and bad at the same time.  The next weekend, Beth, and June and I met YaYa and Noah near Blackwater Falls and spent the night.  We stayed at a lodge, and enjoyed one of the hiking trails, and the swimming pool and the falls themselves.

The garden became more established shortly before the power outage, which ended up being a good thing when the power went out because we could eat out of it, at least a little—tomatoes, basil, cucumbers and broccoli are all edible.  We finally planted lettuce and carrots several weeks ago and they are coming up, though too small to pick. There’s also a cute little yellow pumpkin the size of an apricot. We’re having more trouble with flowers than we usually do.  The sunflowers and zinnias for the most part either didn’t germinate or were eaten by slugs or died after being transplanted to the garden right before the first heat wave of the summer a couple week ago.  Not a single sunflower and only two zinnias survived out of around forty seeds planted. We do have some black-eyed Susans and bachelor buttons in the flower bed.

We are either going to have a really good year for tomatoes or a really bad one.  We triumphed over the white flies and the plants are laden with more green and yellow and orange fruit than we usually have this time of year, but all four of them have early blight.  I’ve been pruning the diseased branches but it’s not clear if I can get all the fungus before the plants die from excessive foliage loss.  Oh, and the squirrels are eating the tomatoes, too. I picked what I thought were around ten almost ripe cherry tomatoes last week to save them from the thieving rodents. They were so soft I tried one, and it was perfect– sweet, tart and juicy, so now I think we may have planted an orange variety and not a red one.  We had them on pasta salad that night and when Beth tried her first one she gasped a little. They were that good.


It was Friday night that the power went out. Fierce storms were predicted, a kind of storm I’d never heard of, actually, a derecho. The name comes from the Spanish word that means straight, because it travels in a straight line. This seems ironic to me because what it did was take our routine, which already felt wobbly, and throw it into crazy loops, nothing straight about it.

The D.C. region is served by a power company with a truly wretched reliability record so I had reason to expect we’d lose power that night. I didn’t expect it to be out for four days. The really fun part was that the power outage coincided with a heat wave, our second one in two weeks.  Friday was a steamy and record-breaking 104 degrees.  Saturday was only a few degrees cooler and it’s continued in the mid to high nineties ever since. In fact, we are poised to break the record for most consecutive days with a high temperature of 95 or higher in Washington, DC tomorrow.

Sleeping was a challenge.  We put a futon on the floor for Noah so he wouldn’t have to sleep on his top bunk and we eschewed pajamas.  (June was so entranced by the idea she could sleep in just her underpants that she may never wear pajamas again.)  The first night was just awful, none of us got much sleep at all, but even though it was only a little cooler the next night, we either adjusted or were too tired to stay awake and we slept better.  June did wake up in the middle of the night every night, though, and we let her sleep in our bed with Beth (I went to sleep in hers) when she did.

Eating was a challenge, too.  We had to throw out most of what we had in the refrigerator and freezer. The first two nights we ate dinner out, but Monday I made pasta (we have a gas stove) and served it with garden produce. Then on Tuesday, Beth picked up peach gazpacho at Souper Girl on her way home from work, and the kids and I visited the Latino market near our house where we bought an avocado, some mangoes and frozen pupusas and a bag of ice, which I used to fashion a makeshift icebox out of our biggest cooler. Beth went to the 7-11 for milk Monday and Tuesday morning and we went to Starbucks every day, not only for the chance to drink an iced beverage, but to sit in the air conditioning for a while. We’d camp there, playing cards and reading.

We also enjoyed the air-conditioning at the community center on Saturday morning when we all went to watch June test for her white belt in Kung Fu.  I was concerned her fatigue might affect her performance, especially when she had trouble with the concentration exercise at the beginning of class.  The students sit on the floor with their eyes closed while the instructor drops two coins near them and they have to reach out and find them. Once she was warmed up, though, she was fine.  There was a boy from her class also testing for his white belt and he went first, and passed, and it was June’s turn. She demonstrated the first four forms and the teacher tied the sash around her waist and they bowed to one another.  She looked radiantly happy.  The instructor said he knew she’d do well because “this is business to you,” approving words from a rather stern teacher.

Then it was time to watch a teenage boy from the advanced class test for his green belt.  At this level the moves are much faster.  The boy was nervous but he was also quick, flexible and strong. I was sitting behind June but I could see her face in the mirror as she watched him with rapt attention. Her mouth hung open a few times in pure admiration. I think one of the things June likes about Kung Fu is the orderly progression of the belts and that you have to earn them. It isn’t like soccer where everyone gets a medal at the end of the season.  You don’t test for a belt until the instructor thinks you’re ready and not everyone passes.  June saw a boy test for his yellow belt and fail in the spring. (He passed the next week.)

I was unable to work Monday or Tuesday because the power was out at June’s old preschool where she was supposed to attend camp. They re-opened on Tuesday morning but we still didn’t have power and the notebook computer Beth generously lent me wasn’t getting a good Internet connection.  Even though I didn’t work it was nice to have some semblance of routine on Tuesday and June was delighted to go to camp with more than a third of her old class (even though I did misremember the opening time and drop her off a half hour late). I am a creature of habit. That’s why summer, even under normal circumstances is difficult for me and that’s why I turned down my mother’s kind invitation to come up to Pennsylvania and stay with them. We didn’t know when the power would come back and I wanted to everyone to get back to camp and work and normalcy as soon as we could.

The power outage wasn’t all bad, though, especially the first two days. We spent a little more time than usual together, seeking air-conditioned places and eating out. Partially deprived of television and the computer—we do have some battery operated electronic devices—the kids were forced to find other ways to amuse themselves. They designed and played a series of board games (we took June’s first one to Starbucks to play it and I was impressed that it does in fact work, even though it’s very simple).

After the Blackout

Then Tuesday night the power finally came back and we could do dishes and laundry and turn on the fans and the air-conditioning and drink ice water and life was better. Wednesday was the fourth of July.  In the morning we attended Takoma’s quirky little parade and in the afternoon Beth went grocery shopping and I worked for a couple hours before our backyard picnic of veggie dogs, baked beans, corn on the cob, watermelon and limeade.

That night Beth and Noah went to the fireworks.  Because I am the strictest mother on the planet when it comes to bedtime, it’s the first time Noah’s ever seen fireworks. But I had to let him stay up past his bedtime sometime and it seemed like the right year.  When he came home he said it was louder than he expected and that he didn’t realize the fireworks would “light everything up” the way they did.  Beth snapped a picture of his illuminated face, watching his first firework display. I think she was as happy to go as he was.  I suppose a little deviation from the routine isn’t the worst thing in the world.  Maybe that’s the lesson of the derecho.  Let it be said, though, it’s not a lesson I want to review any time soon.