The House of Crazy

Noah had almost finished his bowl of brown rice crisps on Sunday morning when he noticed, “Hey, there’s milk in this cereal!”

“Milk on your cereal?” Beth cried in mock surprise.

“What is this?” Noah said. “The House of Crazy?”

Noah prefers orange juice on his cereal. It’s a bad habit he picked up from YaYa. (Andrea has no other bad habits I know of, so I hope she will forgive me for telling the Internet about this one.) I object to juice on cereal on two counts. First, it’s gross. Second, I have to badger Noah into drinking more milk at meals if he doesn’t have it on his cereal. I hadn’t put the milk on the cereal to be sneaky, though. I’d genuinely forgotten. Beth usually makes his breakfast. I’d volunteered to feed him so she could focus on packing.

Beth’s mom underwent minor surgery last Wednesday and then a series of unexpected and scary complications ensued. The evening after the surgery she stopped breathing and had to go on a ventilator overnight. The doctors thought it might be a reaction to a painkiller but no one really seemed to know why it happened. Shortly afterward she came down with pneumonia. This was likely caused by either the ventilator or the chest compressions performed by the student nurse who found her. Unnecessary chest compressions, as it turns out. She had a pulse all along even though he couldn’t find it.

Beth was frustrated by the lack of clear answers from the hospital and antsy being away from home during this family crisis. After a few days of confusing ups and downs she decided to forgo all or part of our week’s vacation at the beach and go home. She drove us out to the beach on Saturday and helped us get settled into the house. She stayed overnight and left for Pittsburgh Sunday morning.

“You’re going to miss the House of Crazy,” I told her. Both kids were still seated at the breakfast table, singing different songs quite loudly.

“I will,” she said emphatically, though she pointed out she was headed into a potentially crazier situation.

I cried a little as I watched our red Subaru pull out of the driveway of the beach house. I felt so many emotions: relief for Beth, who was on her way to where she needed to be; worry for Andrea who almost left us and who might not be out of the woods yet; and sadness for this separation during my favorite week of the year.

I wouldn’t be single parenting, though, because my mom was due to arrive that afternoon. I’d been glad she was coming all along but now I was even gladder. On Saturday evening while Beth was grocery shopping for us, I took the kids to the beach and we got back before she did. Just getting everyone showered was an adventure. Both kids were encrusted with sand and I didn’t want to let them set foot in the house. How to get soap, towels and clean clothes into the outdoor shower with them outside? I herded them into the shower and had Noah lock it from the inside so June wouldn’t wander into traffic while I was in the house. June was not pleased with this arrangement and screamed bloody murder while I rummaged through our half-unpacked belongings. I gave up on finding the shampoo and washed Noah’s hair with bar soap. I’m reasonably competent at taking care of the kids on my own most of the time, but on new turf, out of our routine, it’s a bit harder. When Beth got home from the grocery store, both kids were clean, in pajamas and snacking. I knew we’d manage fine, even if things got a bit crazy at times.

Day 1
Sunday morning was rainy so after Beth drove off, Noah and I settled in on the screened porch to read Dragon Slayers’ Academy #6 (Sir Lancelot, Where Are You?) ( for over an hour. He’s supposed to read or be read to for twenty minutes a day for his school reading log but we’d been so busy getting ready to go to the beach (and squeezing in a trip to the Montgomery County Fair) that we’d skipped two days. He wanted to make the time up now. June wandered in and out, sometimes sitting with us and listening, sometimes paging through her own books, sometimes rearranging the seashells that decorated the porch.

When the rain cleared up, we went to Candy Kitchen to stock up on candy necklaces, fudge, gummy butterflies and saltwater taffy. Then we hit the beach. After just a half hour, thunder rumbled, lightning flashed and the lifeguards cleared the beach. In my former life, I would have hung out on the boardwalk until the lifeguards left, then returned to the beach, relishing having it more or less to myself. But now that I’m a mom, walking on the beach during an electrical storm no longer seems like a good idea.

The rain started while we were still picking up our sand toys and by the time we reached the boardwalk, the drops were so big they looked like hail. We hid out in Funland until it let up a bit and then we hurried home.

Mom arrived mid-afternoon, shortly after June woke from her nap. Noah was finishing up the very last page in his summer math packet. He jumped up from his work and ran to the door.

“Welcome to the Haunted Mansion of Delaware!” he greeted her. He and Beth had been poking around in the basement earlier and Noah, who loves the mess and jumble of basements, wanted to pretend it was haunted.

We took another short jaunt to the beach, came home and showered with less screaming. It turns out June prefers being swung in the hammock by Grandmom to being locked in the shower with Noah. Go figure.

Dinner preparations were something of a comedy of errors. The water Mom put on to boil for mac-n-cheese was cold long after she turned on the stove. So was the burner. What was wrong with the stove? I was too preoccupied to help just then because I was trying to open a can of black olives with the kind of can-opener that just makes triangular holes because I couldn’t find a more suitable one. Finally Mom found another one and now able to open cans, if not boil water, we decided to have baked beans with veggie hot dogs instead. Noah ate yogurt. After dinner, the kids dug into their candy and everyone seemed satisfied with the meal.

I cleaned up in the kitchen, then I read to June while Mom and Noah played crazy eights. I called Beth and received the welcome news that Andrea was being moved off the ICU and might be discharged the next day.

Day 2
At nine sharp I called the realty about the stove. It turned out the cleaners sometimes disconnect the burners. I checked and sure enough they weren’t really connected, just resting on their foil-covered bowls. I plugged them in and they worked. I was relieved not to have to spend the day waiting for a repairperson.

“Beth would have noticed this,” I said.

“Jim would have, too,” Mom said.

Mom and Noah set off on a grocery-shopping expedition and I took June to the beach. This childcare arrangement ended up lasting the entire day because we kept missing each other. Mom and Noah were still out when June and I returned and June was napping when they got back. I tried to get out of bed to greet them, but June started to stir and I thought better of it. Mom and Noah left for the beach before June woke up and we passed each other as they were returning and we were headed out to the beach. Mom offered to take June so I could swim, but I didn’t want to snatch a beach outing from June a half block from the beach, so I kept her.

We built a little sand castle down by the water. I stuck a piece of beach grass in it for a flagpole and as I was searching for a bit of seaweed to tie to it, I noticed June sticking in more and more pieces of beach grass. Clearly, she thought this was the plan, so I went with it. Soon the tiny mound of sand bristled with spikes.

When we came back, Mom and Noah were assembling Mousetrap ( I’d seen the box inside earlier and I’d wondered if it belonged to the house or if Mom had bought it. (She did.) My first thought on seeing it all boxed up was, “Noah will love that.” My first thought on seeing the fragile-looking, half-finished contraption with many of its tiny pieces scattered around the table was “Not toddler-friendly!” I hurried June off to the shower.

After our postponed mac-n-cheese dinner, we set off for the boardwalk for ice cream. Noah wanted a shake. June wanted something yellow (it’s her new favorite color) and Mom and I wanted frozen custard. The boardwalk did not disappoint. Noah got a cookies-n-cream shake, June got a vanilla cone with a butterscotch dip (more of a golden brown than yellow but she didn’t complain), I got a peanut butter and chocolate twist with chocolate jimmies and Mom got a chocolate and vanilla twist. We found a bench and ate. I decided to let June walk part of the way back instead of riding in the stroller. Mom held her hand and she ambled through the crowds, beaming.

I’d promised Noah he could have his fortune told by the mechanical Gypsy mannequin, but we passed her and had to backtrack. Finally we found her. She passed her hands over her crystal ball and in an Eastern European accent, told him his lucky color was green as the ball turned green. “And that is your favorite color,” I told him as he stared at the fortune-teller with a look of mild surprise. The machine spat out a card, his fortune, which he guarded jealously.

As we left the crowds for the quieter part of the boardwalk, Mom heard her phone beep. There was a message. I called Beth. She was a bit downhearted because Andrea had not been released that day. Beth was hoping Andrea would be released the following day.

Day 3
Tuesday morning I decided to start dinner while the kids watched television. Mom was taking the kids to Funland in the late afternoon while I had some solo beach time. I wasn’t sure what time we’d all get home but I thought it might be late. I was making pasta with a tomato-cream sauce with mushrooms and garlic (and tomatoes from our garden). The first thing to go in the pot was the olive oil. A minute or so after I measured it, I noticed the bottle, now half-empty, lying on its side on the counter which was covered with a rapidly growing puddle of oil. It had gotten on all manner of things and cleanup was so involved–thanks for pitching in, Mom!– that I let the kids watch an extra show, much to their delight. Finally, the sauce was in the fridge and the kids and I were headed for the beach and my mom for the outlets.

After fifteen minutes of playing, Noah announced that he had to go to the bathroom. I should have been glad he told me. Due to his sensory issues, she still has problems knowing when he needs to go. He’s also more than a little scared of public restrooms. (He doesn’t like the sound of all of toilets flushing.) He actually used the bathroom four days in a row at drama camp last week so we were all feeling a bit celebratory about that. So I didn’t say, “Are you sure?” or “Can you wait?” Instead, I dragged June away from her enthusiastic digging, got her in the stroller and walked the fifteen minutes down the boardwalk to the nearest restroom and stood outside the men’s room door, nervous as I always am when he’s in a men’s room. When he came out he said he couldn’t go and he didn’t feel the feeling anymore.

“I guess we came all this way for nothing,” he said, looking sheepish.

I wasn’t annoyed anymore, just filled with compassion. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m glad you tried.”

My sympathy lasted until we were less than halfway back to our spot and both kids started whining that they wanted to go home. The phrase “miserable ingrates” did not pass my lips, though it did pop into my brain. Instead I said in a bright and even tone, “It’s eleven o’clock. We’ll leave at 11:30.”

It was 11:10 by the time we got back to our towel. June was happy to resume playing in the sand but Noah wanted to know why we had to go to the beach anyway. Then he wanted to know why I had to keep following June back and forth between the water and the sand instead of staying in one place and playing with him. Finally, we were all in one place, peacefully making dribble castles. (Noah calls them “drizzle castles.”) Noah doesn’t quite have the hang of how to hold his fingers but he was getting a few good dribbles. June was trying it, too, with almost as much success. The kids were quiet and focused. I looked at my watch: 11:30. I decided not to say anything about it. June might melt down if I kept her out too close to nap time, but I didn’t want to lose this moment. Five minutes later I was rewarded for staying by the sight of several dolphin fins skimming across the calms seas.

On the way back to the house, Noah said with a sigh, “I wish we could live at the beach.”

Later that afternoon, June opened her eyes, blinked sleepily and was on the verge of falling back asleep when Noah’s triumphant cry, “It worked!” woke her definitively from her nap. She wanted to go see what Grandmom and Noah were doing. I carried her into the living room where we saw the Mousetrap fully assembled and working. Mom explained Noah had figured out why the finished contraption wasn’t working. They hadn’t attached a rubber band they’d assumed was just part of the packaging. Noah picked up the instructions, which they hadn’t consulted, relying instead on a diagram on the box, and found the answer. His mechanical ability is either the result of his donor’s genetic contribution, or something he picked up from watching Beth work on things or both, because he certainly didn’t get it from me.

As promised, Mom took the kids to Funland and Candy Kitchen after she and Noah played a quick game of Mousetrap. I was alone on the beach from 3:15 to 5:30. I read; I swam: I chronicled our adventures. (I am so old school I sometimes handwrite this blog.) I was just sitting on the towel watching the ocean when I heard a familiar voice say, “I think that’s my Mommy” and June came trotting over.

Noah wanted to play in the surf with me so we left Mom in charge of June. I explained that her ear-piercing screams as the waves come up over her feet are really happy ones. You can tell by looking at her face. Noah and I waded into the water. He’s going in a bit deeper this year. I told him it would be high tide in fifteen minutes. He wanted to be in the water at the exact moment of high tide. I held my arms out and he ran around me, grabbing onto one hand as he swung over and let go of the other one, circling me over and over and the waves crashed around our legs. His hands felt large and strong in mine.

I sang to him:
The tide is high but I’m holding on.
I’m gonna be your number one.
Number one, number one.


I’m not his number one all the time. I share that honored position with Beth and someday we will both cede it. But even as he dances around me and we loosen our grip only to clasp hands again, I am holding on. Always holding on.

I called Beth while Mom got the water boiling for pasta. Andrea had been discharged and was home with an oxygen tank to help her breathe at night.

Day 4
June looked up from her oatmeal on Wednesday morning and said, “Where’s Bef?” It was the first time in three days she’d asked. In the course of a normal weekday she asks where Beth is about twenty times so I guess she was distracted by her new surroundings. Just the day before Noah mentioned missing Beth for the first time without adding something like “so she can fix the iPod.” I told him I missed her, too.

“She’s at YaYa’s house,” I answered June. “She was sick and she had to go to the hospital.”

June face lit up. Ever since she fell and bit through her lip and had to go to the nighttime pediatric urgent care last spring, she has been very interested in hospitals and doctors making your feel better.

“She’s home now,” I added. “She’s better. Beth is taking care of her.”

“The doctor helped her feel better!” June said triumphantly.

Well, not exactly, I thought, but I said, “Yes.”

“The doctor turned on the tv,” June said sagely. The televisions at various doctor’s offices have made a big impression on June. She’s sure they play a big part in the healing process.

Late in the afternoon, Noah and I were playing in the surf. We were pretending to be in the bubbling soup pot of a giant who thought we were noodles. “We’re not noodles!” we yelled. I tried to remember how to say “noodles” in Spanish so I could yell it in Spanish, too. (Noah will need his Spanish again in a couple of weeks so every now and then I switch over to Spanish when I’m talking to him.)

“He doesn’t understand English or Spanish,” Noah said. “He’s a French giant. Beth speaks a little French.”

“Too bad she’s not here,” I said.

This was the day I really started to miss Beth. I was tired. Physically tired because I hadn’t been sleeping well, with June rolling around in the double bed without Beth on the other side to anchor her, but also mentally tired of refereeing the kids’ bickering. I had that late afternoon when-is-Beth-getting-home feeling all day long.

At one point I’d run over to see why Noah was pulling June roughly by the arm and why they were both screaming. As I approached, Noah’s screams grew louder and even more dismayed. Apparently I was standing in a shallow depression he’d dug in the sand, the hole from which he’d just pulled June. “Noah, let go of her. You can’t have your own part of the beach where no one else can walk,” I said.

“Why not?” he demanded, as he let her go.

“Because she doesn’t understand and it just upsets her,” I said. But as I watched her run over to the hole and stamp her little footprints into its damp, sandy bottom with fierce glee, I wondered if maybe she did understand after all.

Mom watched the kids while I went for a swim. When I returned, I was informed that Noah wouldn’t stop pestering June as she tried to snuggle into the sand underneath the beach towel (yes, underneath, not on top) and she deliberately threw sand in his face. I told her that was a naughty thing to do and her face crumpled. “She was provoked,” Mom said. Remembering the hole, I thought he was, too.

The recipe I’d planned for dinner (a vegetable cous cous pilaf) took longer than expected to make. The kids were hungry and grumpy as Mom and I scrambled to get dinner on the table. I called Beth while the cous cous was soaking in hot water. She said her mom was doing pretty well and might come home the following day.

As he got ready for bed, Noah said, “I wish we were staying longer.”

“Me, too,” I said.

For the first time since we arrived, June did not go easily to sleep that night. She was up well past 9:30 (I stopped looking at the clock) crying miserably for reasons I could not fathom. I held her until we both slept.

Day 5
June woke early. I wondered if this, combined with her late night would make her cranky. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. When I rejected her suggestion of pretzels for breakfast, she fell to the floor and screamed.

At 8:05, after I’d made French toast and veggie bacon, eaten, cleaned up the kitchen and started reading The Return of the Dragon ( to Noah, Beth called. She was coming back.

Returning from the beach for lunch, Noah decided we were superheroes from outer space. We got to work on our identities. Juney Jupiter and Noah Neptune were easy. Should I be Steph Saturn, Mommy Mars or Mommy Mercury? I thought that last one had a nice ring, but Noah thought I should use my given name so Steph Saturn it was.

“There’s no planet that starts with B,” I noted.

“Elizabeth?” Noah suggested. I shook my head.

Noah thought we should make up a planet. I was leaning toward assigning her Venus since the B and V sounds are similar. Plus, I thought, but did not say, Venus is the goddess of love. Then the answer occurred to me. “Earth starts with E” I said.

“Elizabeth Earth!” Noah cried.

I wondered how close she was now.

Later that afternoon, Noah, June and I were nestled in a little cave someone had dug in the sand near the high water mark. Every now and then a wave washed gently over our legs. I was a little nervous that big wave might swirl in and knock June off her bottom, but Noah insisted that this was our superhero hideout and June was delighted with the little enclosure so we stayed put and I kept my eye on the ocean. After we’d been there awhile and only the occasional tail end of a wave reached us, I relaxed. That’s when the cave filled with frothing water up to my chest. June was completely submerged. I couldn’t see her. Instinctively, my hands shot out to the spot where she’d been and I pulled her up out of the water. Her wet hair was filled with sand. Her blue eyes were wide and shocked. She didn’t cry at first. Nor did she cough or sputter. I think she must have managed to keep her mouth shut under the water. “I float in the water,” she said solemnly and then she started to cry.

She didn’t cry long and I held her until she stopped. Then I took her up to Mom. June stuck close by her, playing with her sand toys and cuddling on Mom’s lap for a long time.

I was swimming when I saw Noah waving excitedly from the shore. I got out of the water. “Is Beth here?” I asked eagerly.

“No,” he said. “Well…it looks like you’re finished swimming.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I said, starting to wade back in. He looked disappointed. “I’ll come out soon,” I promised. I didn’t want, too, though. The sky was a robin’s egg blue, streaked with cirrus clouds. The waves were big and gentle and so clear I could see tiny fish swimming in their crests. As I drifted northward, I admired a series of elaborate sand castles on the shore, including the Great Wall of China with “Beijing 2008” and the Olympic rings etched onto it. It was the one that looked like a dragon, though, that made me get out of the water for a closer look. It’s the Summer of the Dragon for us. Noah and I are reading three separate books series about dragons. It wasn’t actually a dragon, but just a half-eroded castle with a line of turrets suggestive of a dragon’s back scales. Still, I thought Noah might like to see it, and the Great Wall of China (which he’s long wanted to visit) as well. So I set off in search of him.

As we were visiting the castles, and Noah was jumping into a big hole someone had dug, I saw Beth walking down the beach toward us. I gave her a big hug and got her front all wet. Noah hugged her, too, and soon Mom was walking and June was running toward us. Beth swung June up into her arms. After five days and four nights, Elizabeth Earth had returned to the House of Crazy.