For those of you who have observed that I sometimes have a tendency to go on a wee bit longer than strictly necessary, here’s Noah’s version of our week at Rehoboth Beach, written for his summer homework: “On my trip I went to CANDY KITCHEN and I bought some teeth. I ate at Grotto Pizza with my family out in the back patio. We won a shark.” That pretty much covers the highlights. However, for those of you who crave more detail, here’s What We Did on Our Summer Vacation. Get yourself a glass of lemonade. It’s a long one.
Eating pizza on the boardwalk, Noah was dazzled by the gastronomical choices before him. He wanted ice cream, no funnel cake, no gelato. We explained, not for the first time, that since we’d stopped at Dairy Queen on the drive to the beach and the rental house refrigerator was full of fruit from the farmers’ market, we were not getting dessert at the boardwalk.
“How about fruit-flavored gelato?” he suggested.
Sunday was our first full day at the beach. After a breakfast of coffee shop fare eaten on the boardwalk, Beth and June headed back to the house for her morning nap, while Noah and I dove into a sand castle, sand pyramid, sand apartment building, sand Costan Rican rainforest village complete with sand volcano-making extravaganza. Noah has long enjoyed making and immediately smashing sand castles. In previous years his imaginary kingdoms were plagued by malicious and/or clumsy giants who destroyed the unfortunate royals’ fortresses. Since receiving a book on medieval castles for his birthday, however, he prefers more historically accurate siege tactics. Tunneling under the castle until it collapses is his favorite.
Back at the house we worked on some of his summer reading homework while we waited for Beth and June to return from grocery shopping. Beth reports that on being strapped into her car seat, June said hopefully, “Go beach?” But she had to wait.
After lunch, I napped with June while Beth and Noah took in the attractions at Funland (http://www.funlandrehoboth.com/) and played miniature golf. It was five-thirty by the time June and I met up with them on the boardwalk. Noah excitedly showed me the golf ball-sized eyeball he’d purchased with two weeks’ allowance. Beth went back to the house to cook dinner. I promised to follow with the kids in a half hour. Finally, June go to “go beach.” She was excited, dashing all around on the sand and pointing to the “ducks” (seagulls) she saw everywhere. Noah was shocked and dismayed to learn I couldn’t chase her and make sand castles with him at the same time.
“I stayed because I thought it would be fun and this isn’t fun,” he declared, insisting we return to the house. I told him we had to stay so Beth could cook in peace and because June and I were having fun. He responded by laying face down in the sand for ten minutes, an impressively long sulk for Noah. When he rejoined us wordlessly, I held June up in front of my face and began singing a song he learned at drama camp.
“My name is Juney and you know what I got?”
A delighted grin broke out over Noah’s face. “What have you got?” he sang back.
“I got a brother who is hotter than hot!”
“How hot is hot?”
“Batman and Superman…”
“Uh huh? Uh huh?”
“Can’t do it like Noah can!”
I won him over. We ran and played in the surf until it was time to go. June was utterly fearless about the waves, charging toward them until I caught her and swept her up, dangling her feet in the churning water. Once I was too late and the wave knocked her onto her bottom. She was sitting up to her chest in foamy water and laughing. When the half hour was up, Noah helpfully gathered up the sand toys as I attempted to walk away from the ocean carrying his sandy sister in her waterlogged romper and jacket. (It was unseasonably cold so I’d brought her to the beach dressed.) She wriggled and cried and shrieked in protest. Once we were halfway up the beach she sobbed, “Go walk,” which is what she sometimes says when she wants to be put down to walk. I set her down and she pulled her hand out of mine and dashed back in the direction of the water. She’s a girl after my own beach-loving heart.
As we headed for the beach, Noah asked, “Can we make sand castles?”
“Yes,” I answered, possibly with a trifle less enthusiasm than the day before. I like making sand castles as much as the next person, but Noah’s capacity for this activity is nearly limitless, or so it seems to me after a couple of hours.
We did make castles, but the main construction project of the day turned out to be digging holes. Noah wanted a deep hole, oval in shape. We alternated five-minute turns with his biggest shovel. This plan afforded me five-minute increments of sitting on my towel, sipping my takeout café con leche and staring at the ocean. Plus the digging would provide Noah with the joint and muscle input we’re supposed to make sure he gets. It seemed ideal. But after a while the sides of the hole started to cave in and Noah hit a particularly hard-packed area of sand, both of which impeded his progress. He began to cry in frustration. I suggested a few times that he take a break from the project until he felt able to continue with equanimity. After the third time or so, he actually listened. He didn’t say anything, but he stopped digging and set to work burying the long shovel handle with handfuls of sand, then reaching his hands into the loose sand to retrieve it. This proved soothing enough that he was able to resume digging after a few minutes. When the hole was finished to his satisfaction, he jumped in and instructed me to bury him up to his waist. I was a villain, luring the superhero into my trap.
“How does it feel?” I asked, breaking out of character.
“Heavy,” he said.
“Do you think you can get out or do you need me to dig you out?”
In response, he leapt out of the hole, sand and lanky legs flying through the air. For a moment, he really did look like a superhero.
“Drought all summer and now this,” Beth muttered as she rummaged through the refrigerator at breakfast. After two days of overcast skies and drizzle, we woke to a hard rain on Tuesday morning. It was the kind of day pre-kids I might have spent reading on the beach, wrapped in a beach towel and camped out under the boardwalk or in one of the boardwalk gazebos. As it turned out, I did spend much of it reading, but not the Stephen King and E. Annie Proulx novels I’d brought with me. After her morning nap, June approached me with a board book. “Ree!” she pleaded. So I did, again and again.
Shortly afterward, Beth and Noah returned from some outlet shopping with a pair of blue and white-checkered sneakers for Noah. I tried to use the sneakers to open up a conversation about school starting next week as we walked home from Funland that afternoon. I’d tried to bring it up earlier in case he was worried, but he didn’t seem interested. Was he excited about school starting? No. Were there any friends he hoped would be in his class? Not really.
“Those sneakers will be good for gym class,” I ventured. “I bet it will be hard at first to remember what special you have on which days. I’ll be saying, ‘Remember your sneakers’ on Tuesdays and you’ll have to tell me you have gym on Thursday or Friday or whenever you have it. Then on Friday, I’ll say, ‘Have fun in library’ when you really have it on Mondays or Wednesdays.”
He looked at me and said, “I think it’s going to be harder for you than for me, Mommy.”
We began work on his summer reading homework in earnest once we got back to the house. At the very beginning of the summer, during the space of a couple of June’s naps, Noah tore through the two thick math workbooks he’d been assigned. I decided instead of giving him a schedule for the reading homework, I’d let him work at his own pace. It was the no-nag plan. Surely someday he’d just pick it up and do it as he had with the math. When he’s motivated he can be a fast worker, but when he isn’t, the simplest task takes ages. (Toward the end of the school year we received a report from the kindergarten team leader who had come to observe him in class. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a hilarious or heart-breaking blow-by-blow of everything he did—suck his thumb and stare into space, drop and retrieve pencils, look at others’ work—during a twenty-five minute period during which he was supposed to be writing in his journal and ended up writing not a single word.) Since I was home in the afternoons and I speak Spanish, I’d supervised Noah’s homework all last year and I was ready for a break from my role as taskmistress. But as June bled into July and July into August and the reading homework remained untouched, I started to get nervous. (Ironically, during this period, he rapidly completed the public library’s Reading Road Trip program (http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/lkstmpl.asp?url=/content/libraries/summerreading/index.asp). I can’t say I blame him. The prizes—free pizza from Pizza Hut, an ice cream sundae from McDonald’s, ice cream and a free carnival ride at the Montgomery County Fair, a gift certificate from Barnes and Noble, etc.—were a lot more enticing than a party at school.
We sat on the screened porch and read for much of the afternoon. I read him a Magic Tree House book (#28: High Tide in Hawaii). We read a Curious George book, passing it back forth, taking turns reading alternating pages. We read a book of fairy tales that was actually designed to be read by two readers, from the You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You series (http://www.hachettebookgroupusa.com/books/50/0316146110/index.html).
As we read, I took pride in how effectively Noah tackled the hard words and how instead of just decoding the sounds, he reads with expression. I also noted how he would often pause a long time before reading. Was he scanning ahead? Woolgathering? Who knows? I hope his teachers will be patient enough to wait for him because when he does read, it’s worth the wait.
After we read, it was time for Noah to write about the books we read. It’s really the writing that held up Noah’s progress in the reading homework. He loves to be read to and is getting better and reading himself and liking it better. Writing is still a chore for him, though. He doesn’t like to do it and when he has to he tries to enliven a dull activity by making the letters “fancy.” The boy is a born calligrapher. He adds so many curlicues and little pictures inside the letters that the results are often scarcely legible. And writing just the title and the author a book can easily take a half an hour.
As often as I find myself urging him to just write clearly and plainly so he can finish, I end up secretly admiring the results—the H in Hawaii drawn as two hula dancers, the i’s like stretched out leis. I wonder what his teachers will make of these illustrated manuscripts when he turns them in. Will they puzzle over them in frustration, struggling to read the letters, or will they recognize his color-outside-the-lines spirit in them and strive to nurture it?
Wednesday dawned rainy and cold again so during June’s morning nap I took Noah to the T-shirt Factory and got him a hooded sweatshirt. We’d failed to pack any warm clothes for him and while he wasn’t complaining, I hated seeing him brave the elements in a t-shit and shorts every day. He chose a decal with the words “Rehoboth Beach, Delaware: Just Chillin,’” and some rather incongruous palm trees on it and watched with interest as the salesclerk applied it to the plain white hooded sweatshirt he’d chosen off the rack. He put it on, commenting on the funny smell of the freshly applied decal and we went for a walk on the boardwalk. I’d hoped to walk the whole one-mile length of it, but I’d promised Noah a treat after the walk and once we were quite near the appointed coffee shop, he discovered he was hungry. Could we stop now? I bought him a pineapple juice and a cinnamon twist pastry, got a latte for myself and we settled ourselves at a high table with our books and pencils and papers. I jotted down a rough draft of my blog while he worked on reading homework. At the exact moment I was describing his class observation, I looked up and noticed he had dropped his pencil, clambered down from the stool, removed his crocs and was trying to pick up the wayward pencil with his bare toes, without much luck.
Shortly after I got him back on track, Beth and June walked in the door. We switched kids, Beth staying with Noah to supervise his homework while I bolted for the boardwalk with June. I got to finish my walk, pushing June in the stroller until she struggled to get out and walking hand in hand with her until she climbed back into the stroller. I was considering having lunch out and scanning menus, not paying much attention when June pitched one of her sneakers overboard. It was a pretty short stretch of boardwalk between the last place I’d checked her feet and where I noticed that one of her shoes was missing, so I was hopeful I could find it. But even though we canvassed the area several times, the little blue shoe was nowhere to be found. It was inevitable, I supposed. We’ve already driven all the way to Gaithersburg, to the Ride On bus (http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/tsvtmpl.asp?url=/content/dpwt/transit/index.asp) Lost and Found to retrieve one of those shoes. She must have been destined never to outgrow them. I gave up on the shoe and decided there was time to play in the sand before heading back to the house for lunch.
But June did not want to play in the sand. She wanted to play in the water. Never mind it was chilly and she wasn’t wearing her bathing suit, but the only clean, dry long-sleeved shirt she had left. She made a beeline for the shore. She was in shorts so I wondered if I could hold her hand and keep her far back enough so only her feet got wet. No dice. She pulled her hand away from mine angrily and kept charging toward the waves. It wasn’t going to work. I scooped her up and walked back to the stroller. June writhed and howled. For a while I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get her into the 5-point harness, but she let down her guard for a second and I pounced. Click. Click. She was in. This did not improve her mood, and wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t have a pacifier. She screamed for fifteen minutes straight, giving it up as a bad job only minutes from the rental house.
Beth left to get a massage. I made lunch for the kids and the three of us snuggled in bed and watched Between the Lions. (It was going to be a free-free week for Noah, but I needed a break so we made a one-day exception.) In the mid-afternoon, Andrea, who was spending the rest of the week with us, arrived. Noah was happy to see her and immediately recruited her to play his Junior Labrynith board game (http://www.funagain.com/control/product/~product_id=000697/~affil=TNEL) with him. June hid her face in my chest whenever Andrea looked in her direction, but eventually she warmed up and let her hold her.
Just as Beth was starting to work on dinner (she was the designated cook for the week, a real treat for me), I took June back to the boardwalk to look for the shoe again. Andrea suggested someone might have thrown it out so instead of just scanning the ground for it, I look in each of the numerous trashcans. (You get some odd looks when you do this, but the longer I parent, the more immune I become to odd looks.) Finally, toward the end of the stretch of boardwalk where we’d lost it, perched on top of a garbage can, I spied June’s size 4, navy blue, Velcro-closure sneaker. (The next pair will tie!) It wasn’t in the trash, but I never would have found it if Andrea hadn’t pointed me in the right direction.
I was so happy about finding the shoe (I swear it’s enchanted) that I decided to let June play on the beach again and if she got wet, she got wet. We’d done laundry that afternoon. There were clean, warm clothes at the house. The beach seemed unusually festive. Discouraged from swimming and sunbathing by high surf and cold winds, people were flying kites and building elaborate sand castles in greater numbers than usual.
“Ook” (Look), June cried, pointing to a sea turtle-shaped kite. She wandered from sand castle to sand castle. Her shyness kept her curiosity at bay just enough so that she could see but was in no danger of destroying the fragile creations. There were so many distractions on the sand, I thought we might bypass the whole question of how wet to let her get, but she suddenly remembered the ocean and ran toward it. I caught her and stripped her down to her diaper and let her go. (I think I got some odd looks for that, too, but she’s part mermaid, like her Mama, and sometimes a girl’s got to be who she is.) June ran and laughed in the waves, unmindful of the cold and getting soaked. After a shorter time than usual, she came out. I put on her dry shirt, shorts and socks and got her into the stroller with no fuss.
I got myself a hot mint tea for the return trip and sipped it slowly as we made our way home. When we were a few houses from our own, I could smell the vegetarian barbequed chicken and marinated veggies on the grill. We walked into the yard, where dinner and a doting grandmother awaited.
June woke from an unusually long morning nap at 11:35 a.m. Beth, Noah and Andrea had left to go to a coffee shop hours earlier and were still gone. My mom was due to arrive in a half hour. I spent the next hour making, eating and cleaning up from lunch and folding the last of the laundry. Still, no one came to the door. I was puzzled because Beth had agreed to take June to the nearby urgent care to see if it was an ear infection that was causing her to wake screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night every night we’ve been here. The house phone rang, surprising me, since I wasn’t sure anyone in our party even knew the number, but I bolted for it. It was a recording about cable service. I hung up. Another half hour passed before Beth, Noah and Andrea finally wandered in. I was free to go down to the beach, but I felt I ought to stay and greet my mother. I called her cell and left a message. She called back, saying I should go ahead. I hesitated some more. “I don’t understand why you’re not at the beach,” Beth said, impatient perhaps with watching me pace around the house like a caged lion. I left.
If you know me, you probably know I love the beach, but unless you’ve actually been to the beach with me, you may not understand what I mean when I say that. Pre-kids, a day at the beach meant just that. I got up and went straight to the beach, toting a packed lunch if the house was more than a few minutes from the water. I’d come back at dinnertime, returning for an evening walk if possible. I haven’t had a day like that since Noah was born. In fact, this week I hadn’t even had a proper swim yet since Beth wasn’t coming down (she’s not a beach person—it’s a mixed marriage) and I always had one or both kids with me. But now the opportunity was presenting itself.
I waded into the ocean first thing. The air was warmer than it had been all week. The sky was gray, the water was gray and the surf was rough enough to make the swim challenging. I bobbed up and down, sometimes laughing out loud. After a half hour, I was tired so I got out and read. Once the sun had warmed me sufficiently, I bought myself a watermelon shaved ice. When my mother, who had gotten lost near Rehoboth and had to be guided to the house on the phone by Beth, joined me, I looked at my watch. I was surprised to see I’d only been at the beach an hour and fifteen minutes. The time seemed so full. Mom and I sat on the sand and talked for an hour and a half, about the kids, her therapy practice, recent developments in my sister’s life (Will she and her boyfriend find a house to buy? Will she ever have kids?). The conversation was pleasantly unhurried, unlike most of our phone calls. And while I can’t say it was enough time— to swim, to read, to enjoy adult conversation—it was a deeply satisfying break from the never-ending work of parenting. As my mother and I walked back to the house, I found myself hoping not only for more of the same the next day, but also to make some more sand castles with Noah on our last full day at the beach.
It turns out four adults to two children is about the right ratio for me to spend an almost perfect day at the beach. Noah and I arrived around nine, and had built just enough sand castles and played just long enough in the water to be looking at each other and wondering “what next?” when my mom arrived and he had a fresh playmate. He found a hole someone else had dug and spent a lot of time jumping into it. Later it was a nest and mom was a bird laying eggs they made out of balls of wet sand. She bought him lunch and took him to Candy Kitchen and Funland while I swam, read and had my own lunch of fried clams in pleasant solitude. I have never explained to Noah that I make some rare exceptions to my vegetarianism. I will eat creatures that never could have looked me in the eye because they don’t have eyes. So far, I only indulge in this dirty little secret when he’s not around. Of course, they saw me on the boardwalk as I was eating and I slammed the Styrofoam container shut until they’d left.
Beth, Andrea and June (who, as Beth insisted all along, does not have an ear infection) put in a brief, post-lunch appearance. A wave that went right over her head drenched June and while she still enjoyed playing in the water after that, she was not as quick to pull her hand out of mine.
Noah and Mom returned from their adventures with a stuffed shark they’d won. Mom was quite excited about winning it until Noah shared his take on it: “We paid a dollar for a shark.” The three of us sat together for a while and he sang her songs he’d learned at drama camp. (Who knew kids still sang “Great Green Gobs of Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts” and “I’m Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee”?) We conducted a taste test of the gummy teeth and gummy brains he’d selected at Candy Kitchen. Mom and I preferred the teeth. Noah liked the brains better.
It was just after four when we went back to the house to get cleaned up for an early dinner. It was the longest continuous stretch of beach time I’ve had since Noah was born and the longest he’s ever lasted. We all went out for pizza and after dinner I bought myself a t-shirt with a chubby mermaid on it. Underneath the mild-mannered exterior of overeducated suburban mom-of-two, I’m still me inside, part wild and of the sea. That will never change.
The house was packed and vacated. Mom was already driving back home. We’d planned to stay at the beach for the rest of the morning and leave after lunch to coordinate our departure with the beginning of June’s afternoon nap, but June had refused to take her morning nap, so I was dashing down to the beach for a quick swim while Beth, Andrea, June and Noah waited for me in town.
It was the first really hot day since we’d arrived so the water felt refreshingly cool. The waves were gentle, which was fine with me. I didn’t want to get too sandy because I had nowhere to shower before getting into the car. I swam and floated and rode the glassy smooth waves for fifteen minutes, then reluctantly got out of the water. I stood facing the sea as it washed over my feet and said my silent goodbye. I turned and had walked a half dozen steps toward my towel when an errant wave reached out and caressed my heels.