Everything We Have

At Thanksgiving dinner my mom asked everyone to go around the table and say what made us feel thankful. Noah said computers, being at his new school, and “Mommy and Beth.” June’s answer was simpler: “Everything I have,” she said. When Mom pressed her for specifics she said her toys, but I liked her first answer better.

We drove to my mom and stepfather’s house on Thanksgiving so on that day we pretty much traveled and ate and went to bed. Friday was an eventful, or in June’s words “a giant day.” Beth and the kids and I drove out to the Main Line, where we lived when I was in high school, and had lunch at Hymie’s deli (http://www.hymies.com/hymiesMarion.html), an important hangout spot during my eleventh grade year and the establishment where I learned to appreciate cheese fries. It also has a “World Famous Pickle Bar” and given that pickles are one of June’s favorite foods, it seemed like a natural choice. In fact, I wondered why I had never suggested we go before. We didn’t count on the Black Friday lunch crowds, however, and had to wait a half hour for a table in a crowded waiting area. Service was fast after that, though, and from our first course of pickles to the black and white cookies and poppy seed hamantash we picked up for later in the carryout bakery corner, everyone was satisfied. (And yes, I did have cheese fries, with a salad.) As we left the restaurant, I thought I saw snowflakes swirling in the wind, but no one else did.

We came home and June and I napped. (She’d been up during the night and awakened for the day at 5:45 so we were both done in.) While we slept, Mom and Beth and Noah played Monopoly. When I woke June at close to four and carried her half-asleep and scowling downstairs, Mom was nearly bankrupt, Beth was rolling in money and properties, and Noah was somewhere in the middle. They suspended the game so we could leave for the Christmas light show (http://www.wanamakerorgan.com/xmas.php) at the Wannamaker’s building, which now houses a Macy’s. This show is a Philadelphia tradition I find somewhat daunting to describe, but imagine yourself seated on a red carpet in an atrium, craning your neck to look upward at a screen, several stories high, consisting of light bulbs (an enormous Lite-Brite, if you will) with a big lighted Christmas tree and an ornate organ in front of it. As the organ plays Christmas music and Julie Andrews’ recorded voice narrates, the lights come on in different patterns to depict scenes from The Nutcracker, Frosty the Snowman, etc. Noah liked it, but June loved it. She was rapt the whole time, a few times laughing out loud with pleasure. She must be exactly the right age to receive it all with wonder and delight.

From here, we proceeded to the Dickens Christmas village on the third floor of Macy’s (http://philadelphia.about.com/od/photo_galleries/ig/dickens_village/). You walk through a winding passageway lined with little houses and outdoor scenes from A Christmas Carol. The figures were mechanized mannequins of the sort one used to see in department store display windows at Christmastime, about half life-size. The first one stood at a podium reading the opening passage of the novella. On the walls were plaques with more passages, at least one for each scene. Some of the mannequins moved and some spoke. We made our way through the display very slowly because Noah was reading all the text. (His interest made me wonder if we could read this book together sometime next month.) Noah’s slow progress wasn’t much of a problem because June wanted to linger in some rooms. She loved the ghost of Jacob Marley and concluded it was a leftover Halloween decoration. When we encountered the ghost of Christmas Future, however, she exclaimed, “Too scary! Too scary!” and fled the room. A few minutes later, though, she was tugging on my hand, wanting to go back, so we did.

After we’d had our fill of Dickens we went out for a very tasty dinner at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant and got home well past the kids’ bedtime. Beth says I did a very good job pretending not be panicking about how late we were out.

The next morning Mom, Beth and Noah finished their Monopoly game. (As expected, Beth won.) In the afternoon we met up with a friend of mine from high school at the Tyler Arboretum in Media (http://www.tylerarboretum.org/). What I haven’t mentioned up to now is that my twenty-fifth high school reunion was Friday night and I skipped it. I’ve actually never been to any of my high school reunions. In fact, until recently I wasn’t even sure if my high school had them—I have Facebook to thank for learning it does. Now that I knew, it felt strange to know it was happening, so close, and I wasn’t there. High school was not a very good time for me, especially the first two years and a lot of the friends I did make when I was in eleventh grade were seniors so there didn’t seem to be much point in going. Facebook has brought me back in touch with a lot of acquaintances from my class and I have gotten to know a few of them better than I did back in the day, which has been rewarding. Maybe in another five years I’ll be up for mingling with them in person, but this year it just seemed too overwhelming.

I did want to make an effort to reconnect, though, so I contacted two friends from the class ahead of mine, John, who still lives in the area and Pam, who is back for a year. Only John was free. We decided to meet at the arboretum so the kids (his two and our two) could run around while the adults talked. What we didn’t know and what made the place magical was that there was a series of tree houses and child-sized cottages scattered along the path. Many had plaques explaining what kind of creatures lived there (fairies, pixies, wizards, green men, etc.). There was a sand sculpture of an ogre leaning against a castle with pumpkins at his feet, slowly eroding away. There was a meadow maze, its grass brown but still mowed into shape with several huge straw people in the center. I said it looked like something people who were planning on making a sacrifice to the harvest gods might make. There was a door set into a hill with the question “What Lies Beneath?” posted. Visitors were invited to write a story about it and submit it to the arboretum’s web site. Some houses were too small to enter, but the kids clambered up every ladder they saw and explored every kid-sized building. (June got stuck in one particularly tall tree house when she lost her nerve about coming back down the ladder so John went up and carried her down.)

I think what the kids liked best, though, was the amphitheater. There was a dress-up area with a costume bin and pretty soon John’s nine-year-old daughter and Noah and June were putting on a show for the grownups and John’s just turned four-year-old son, who was too shy to perform. June was a fairy who had gotten lost, John’s daughter was a knight and Noah started off as a wizard but suffered an allergic reaction that turned him into an alligator. Attempts to kill the alligator failed so the knight adopted it instead and then they helped the fairy find her way home. It was a cloudy, chilly day and we had the arboretum nearly to ourselves. It was like our own enchanted kingdom.

As we walked through the woods and fields with the kids racing ahead to find out what came next, the four grownups talked. The feeling was friendly and relaxed; conversation felt easy. John was just as I remembered him, except decades older and with a family if that makes sense. We agreed we should get together again. About an hour into the visit, around 4:40, we told the kids we needed to turn around because the gates closed at 5:00 and as we’d been walking in a circuitous path we weren’t sure how far we were from the exit. The two older kids wanted to keep going, because we hadn’t seen everything, but we persuaded them they didn’t want to get locked into the arboretum for the night (it really was quite cold).

As it turned out the gates did shut while we were still in the parking lot but they’re motion-activated from the inside, so we were able to drive out. (When Beth told this story to my mother and stepfather over pizza that night she said she rammed the car through the gate and my mom almost believed her.)

Sunday we drove home, stopping at the Starbucks closest to my mom’s house for the traditional first holiday drinks of the season. I got an eggnog latte; Beth got gingerbread. We listened to The Austere Academy (Series of Unfortunate Events #5) on the way home. I was glad June slept through a good bit of it, as it’s not really age-appropriate.

Today we’re back in our regular routine–Beth went to work; the kids went to school. Beth was unenthused about going back to her office and I can’t blame her, but I’ve been happy today and full of thankfulness for time with my family and an old friend met anew and deli food and low-tech light displays and Charles Dickens and eggnog lattes and the timeless story of everything we have.