Why This Mom Relaxes into Summer When the End is Near

Around our town the burgeoning sound of children’s protest and despair can be heard rising up toward the burnt July sky, as they realize that with the arrival of August, we are dangerously close to the first day of school, bearing down like a runaway freight train too close to stop before it smashes us. If the stewards of your school district also have decreed that summer ends mid-August, then you too have heard these sounds, the “why oh why’s” and the “woe is me’s” with which I fully concur; school should start in September.

But the calendar is also why I have finally relaxed into the pace of unscheduled lazy summer days. I did not have either the foresight, spine, or budgetary willingness to sign my kids up for endless camps. So with me working from home, they were left to their own devices — really, they were left alone to interact only with their devices, if only I would leave them alone. You must know that means the first half of summer featured ample nagging on my part. (Me: “Go play!” Them: “We are playing!” Me: “I meant outside!” Them: “Where’s the extension cord?”) I kid.

But with only two weeks left, I can let go! Now it’s not weeks of this conflict stretching before me, it’s mere days. So I surrender to days that have no goals or plans besides waking up and staying in pajamas until at long last someone must walk the dogs or go to the market because we are hungry. Days that are not filled with unique enriching activities, but if I’m lucky have been sprinkled with boogie boarding and soccer at the beach, water balloons or card games. And days that are filled with, yes, truly countless hours of xBox and YouTube videos. And I think, what was I so worried about? Will I remember to relax when next summer comes?

For now, August is upon us. There are only two weeks left. Have a great summer.

The Keeper: An Anniversary Tale of Daring

Last week my husband and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. I have often thought that one of the keys to our marriage has been our similarities, such as when one spouse suggested dumping our house to be nomads for several months and the other said, “I was thinking THE SAME THING!” See what I mean? You gotta be on the same page for that whack.

But there is a fundamental way in which we are not the same: one of us meets challenges head-on, sticks with projects that are difficult, and stays calm and patient throughout. The other one is easy to quit, throw in the towel, and call in the experts to do it for her. (I knew you knew which was which.)

Case in point: The anniversary grill.

This year we decided to get a grill as an anniversary present to ourselves. Somehow that icon of backyard suburbia had eluded us lo these many years. So my husband sprung into action, went to Home Depot and came home with a grill. One minor problem. A pre-assembled grill would not fit in our small trunk, especially not with two boogie boards left in the trunk. Oops.

That’s the point when I would have said “never mind, maybe we’ll grill next summer,” or “let’s pay for delivery.” But Christopher, undaunted, bought an unassembled grill, opened the box (because even that box didn’t fit in the car), put all the separate pieces in the trunk, and brought it all home.

He got home, we unloaded the parts, and everything was still hunky-dory.

IMG_7249

Until he took a look at the instructions.

IMG_7250

IMG_7248

I left him to it. He had opened this Pandora’s box of grill himself, and I trusted he would see it through. That’s how he rolls. A lesser person (me) would have dragged it all to the curb with a sign that said “Free.”

When he finished he asked, “Are you done sitting outside?”

“For now I am,” I answered. “Why?”

“Because I’m going to go try the grill and I don’t want to kill both of us.”

“Please don’t die,” I said.

Bravely he went outside. I stayed close to the phone ready to dial 911. All was well.

The next night we ate burgers and hot dogs surrounded by the family that had raised me to call experts for engineering feats (like lightbulb replacement), and we basked in his glow of utter competence. A keeper, this one.

A Reluctant Goodbye to the Incomparable Catherine O’Neill

There are sounds you treasure from your childhood, as insignificant as they are reassuring.

The sound of the back door opening, the screen door double-bumping closed behind it, followed by a loud shout of “FRANNY???” My parents’ friend Cathy O’Neill entered our house this way every time. This sound is precious proof of a time of unlocked doors and friends close by. And it is precious because Catherine passed away earlier this week.

Another sound: Cathy’s brilliant cackle, easy and frequent and high decibel, impossible to sleep through during my parents’ small dinner parties. Roused from our beds, my sister and I would tiptoe down the back stairway and listen from our hidden perch to the sound of energetic discussions, often political.

In the months after I graduated college, I worked as Catherine’s assistant, and got to see her from a more grown-up vantage point. Her dinner parties were evenings thrown together in thirty minutes with incomprehensible flair and haste. Dinner was served on tables dressed with exotic linens picked up for a song at a foreign outdoor market visited during her prolific travel, and she held sway: Announce a topic, command “Discuss!” then pronounce her opinion.

Another sound I always remembered: “I love you madly,” shouted into a cell phone to her husband Richard. I had never heard a telephone goodbye with such enthusiasm, but Cathy was nothing if not passionate. We were standing outside the L.A. County Hall of (Mis)Administration, on our way into a meeting with a County Supervisor so that Catherine could tell them how they should proceed with the Green Line subway. She was a private citizen with a point of view.

In 1972 she and my father ran as a ticket for California Assembly and Senate. They were far too young, smart and audacious to win. In 1992, she made another run. She is the only candidate on whose staff I have served. I told people then that apart from my parents, there was no one else I would have worked for, no one else with her integrity, smarts, values and determination. I’d add my husband to that list now, but it’s still that short.

Cathy, we love you, every flaw and and every incomparable strength. There will never be another you. My mom used to say that when she was an old lady (far far far far into the future), she and you and your gaggle of fabulous women friends would all live together in the old folks home, cooking up mischief. I wish we could have held you to that. I wish comfort to your family. I wish so much.

Catherine O'Neill

Catherine on a mission with the agency she co-founded, the Commission for Refugee Women and Children (photo from their website)

For more memories of Cathy, and to hear her unmistakable voice, I’ll revisit the book Family Travels, co-written by the entire O’Neill/Reeves clan. Here’s a taste from a NYTimes feature from 1997.

The Long Ride Home: Vermont to California (by way of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia and D.C.)

Moving from Stowe to Burlington, Vermont, meant moving up in population size from 5,000-ish to 40,000-ish. Like astronauts acclimating to earth’s gravitational pull after time in space, we were visiting increasingly larger places so that Los Angeles would not crack us upon re-entry.

Burlington, a bustling college town with views of Lake Champlain, was a boon to our license plate game.  Students gearing up for the start of classes at University of Vermont came from all over the country — Washington, Tennessee, Iowa, even California. Church Street Marketplace, several pedestrian blocks of stores and restaurants, was reminiscent of Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, minus the buskers. We walked along the bluffs of Lake Champlain, and could all but convince ourselves we were on Ocean Avenue looking at the Pacific Ocean, but for the minor fact of New York’s Adirondack mountains in the distance.  Our adjustment process was progressing.

Until we visited Shelburne Farms, a 1400-acre working farm, national historic site and nonprofit environmental education center located on the shores of Lake Champlain, which welcomes guests to milk a cow, gather eggs, watch cheese being made, and enjoy food grown on its grounds. Two steps back toward small town goodness.

We left Burlington loaded with goodies from Shelburne Farms’ gift shop – wine, maple syrup and chocolate – to enjoy and share with friends and family who would be hosting us on our path. We decided to skip Boston and gratefully accepted an old friend’s invitation to visit her in Amherst. It had been nearly twenty years since we’d seen each other. Among other things, one of the highlights of this trip was the chance to renew friendships, and inaugurate new ones between our families.

The next day, racing against Hurricane Irene’s arrival, we aimed to arrive in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania in time for dinner. The route we chose was, nonetheless, along a path less taken.

Forgoing speed, we charted a course through Redding, Connecticut in order to visit the setting of My Brother Sam is Dead, a book we were reading to delve into American revolutionary history while in that neck of the woods. (Teacher extraordinaire Mr. Miguel Espinoza had pointed the way to GoogleLitTrips.com, which pointed the way to the places in the book, as did Redding’s own town website).

Despite initial griping, Aaron took the helm of the camera, and documented the places from the book, including gravestones of the real people we were reading about.

We continued on smaller roads, through New York towns like Chappaqua (of Clinton fame) and Tarrytown (of Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow fame), crossing the Hudson at the Tappan Zee Bridge. We arrived in Washington Crossing in time for dinner with grandparents, aunt, friends and dogs, and hunkered down for Hurricane Irene. When the coast was clear, we bade farewell and set off to complete our journey.

The boys could smell home, just two days away. They’d had it with history. With sightseeing. They were done. But we had two days, and the wealth of potential activities in Washington, DC tormented me. How could we choose? Bicycle tour of the monuments; visiting the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial; tour the Bureau of Engraving & Printing to see money being made, the International Spy Museum?! These were all on our list of want-to’s. But time ran out, and they’ll be on our list again next time.

We decided to venture past Washington, D.C. (okay, we accidentally went to Virginia while looking for parking near the National Mall – my fault), to visit the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon, and historic Alexandria, Virginia.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Mount Vernon. On the one hand, I was curious to see how the first President lived, see the faded wooden floors where he stood, the chair where he sat, the bed where he died. On the other hand, I was sickened by imagining the horror of being enslaved there, as I walked on the same paths as the human beings he dominated to keep his house painted, his chamber pots cleaned, his family well-fed and pampered. I looked at the massive stately tomb of the most revered American, knowing that paces away nearly 300 slaves were buried without so much as a gravestone.

So, that was fun.

We lightened things up later that afternoon in Alexandria, eating crepes outdoors by the Town Hall, cruising the Potomac, and browsing some of the 62 artists’ studios at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. We drove our rented Chevy over cobblestone roads past charming brick buildings. I soaked up the other-ness of it, anticipating the mini-malls and wide avenues of L.A. in my future.

The following day, our last full day of this summer adventure, we spent with friends at the Newseum, a gleaming treasure trove of history and temple to the First Amendment.

Here’s a place I could visit again and again. The kids were enthralled by “the Death Tower,” one of the checkpoints the museum had imported from East Berlin along with sections of the Berlin Wall. They listened with astonishment as to its purpose — for guards to see and then shoot fellow citizens trying to escape to the other side — and noted that the West side of the wall was painted with murals and graffiti, the East side was dismally blank.

  In another exhibit, I listened to a radio report of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1932 Berlin Olympics, then watched Tom Brokaw reporting the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone had a chance to try their hand as TV news reporters, joining their cross-country friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then it was over.

We boarded an airplane headed for Los Angeles. On my right, the kids watched a Harry Potter movie for the tenth or twentieth time. On my left, Christopher read a magazine. In the middle, I typed these words. When we pulled up to the California grandparents’ home, they were waiting for us, along with the cousins and sister we’d missed more and more every day.

Everything is as it always was.

Thanks for reading.

Vermont: Freedom and Unity

As we packed the car and prepared to leave our lake cottage at the end of the unpaved road, I was already missing New Hampshire: the white spired churches, our rope swing, “lobstah rolls” and the lazy roads. We were destined for Vermont.

We bade farewell to New Hampshire in Hanover,  
site of Dartmouth College and equally impressive Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery, the longest-operated restaurant in Hanover. Opened in 1947, with a menu that featured “hamburger….35 cents,” Lou’s now welcomes guests with a dessert case that makes you realize you have some serious decisions to make if you’re not staying four years.

. . .

The physical journey from New Hampshire to Vermont is brief; you need only cross the Connecticut River. But the spiritual distance between New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” and Vermont’s “Freedom and Unity” mottos suggested we would be traveling a great distance.

As we made our way north and east on Highway 89, we had three major destinations on our Vermont itinerary: the Green Mountains of Stowe, the Lake Champlain area of Burlington, and the ice cream of Waterbury. Yes, after weeks of travel, we would finally arrive at Mecca: the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour.

While the kids lobbied to stop first at Ben & Jerry’s, we had the advantage of being in charge of the steering wheel. As we approached the highway exit to Vermont’s capitol city, Montpelier, we knew we had to make a detour.

The boys rolled their eyes as Christopher intoned, “Guys, did you know this is the least populous capitol in the nation?” (I didn’t doubt it. I had the feeling I could walk into the Governor’s office next door to the Capitol building and ask if he wanted anything from Dunkin’ Donuts.) It also has to be one of the prettiest, its golden dome gleaming against the deep green of the tree-engulfed mountains behind it.

We got out of the car in front of the capitol and took the requisite picture. The novelty of capitol buildings was wearing thin. After the photo shoot, they asked “Now can we go to Ben & Jerry’s?”

“Almost…” we answered in that noncommittal way that means, “We’re not quite done causing you misery.” (No freedom or unity for our family unit, at least for the moment.)

We forced the poor things to enter a museum

Adjacent to the capitol, the Vermont Historical Society has a hands-on, kid-friendly exhibit about the state we had just entered. Kid-friendly is so my speed. We walked through a full-sized Abenaki wigwam, a re-creation of the Catamount Tavern where Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys gathered, a railroad station complete with a working telegraph and a WWII living room furnished with period music and magazines. From abolishing slavery in its first constitution in 1787, through the gay marriage debate, the Vermont Historical Society gave us the skinny on Vermont. Definite thumbs up.


At last we hightailed it to Waterbury and joined the throngs at the Ben & Jerry’s factory. Christopher, ripe with Vermont factoids, piped up: “Did you know this is the most visited tourist attraction in Vermont?” From the moment we entered the parking lot, it was easy to believe. And why shouldn’t it be? With reasonable tour prices (adults $3, kids free), a heaping taste of a new flavor (“Late Night Snack” for us, featuring chocolate covered potato chips mixed into vanilla!), and good karmic corporate practices, I was happy to add my name to the list of people who’ve stopped by and taken the requisite photo.

As the day faded, we left the land of sweet cream and turned up the mountain road to complete the short distance to Stowe, and our accommodations at the Grey Fox Inn. Ah, Stowe. As soon as we entered the town, I stopped missing New Hampshire.

I realized I’d be missing this place all too soon.

Next up: Stowe, Vermont!

NYC: How Two Kids and Their Parents Devour the Big Apple

As our two-month family road trip moved from Philadelphia to New York City, we shifted gears accordingly.

If Philadelphia shines its light on history, then New York shines its light on right now. Even though New York played its part in American Revolutionary history (hello, Capitol from 1785 – 1790, anyone?), walk into the NYC Visitor Info Center and browse its hundreds of brochures, and you will find exactly one mention of it: George Washington bade farewell to his troops here in 1783 at Fraunces Tavern. Yawn.

New York is too grand, too majestic to bother with what happened 250 years ago. It’s moving fast, baby, and we’re moving, too. We made a list of everything we wanted to see and do in NYC in one week, and set out a campaign to achieve it.

“This week we are go go go, do do do,” I told my kids. “You can rest when we get to New Hampshire.”

So from dawn ‘til dusk, for six days straight, we rocked The City. From Mary Poppins to Harry Potter,

From the Bronx Zoo to the Bronx Bombers,

From the Central Park boathouse to the Intrepid Aircraft Carrier,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From The World’s Largest Dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History to the world’s most dazzling candy store on the Upper East Side,

From Chinatown to Little Italy,

and a subway-aided pilgrimage to my ancestral home – Brooklyn – we never stopped.

Until our children made us.

For once, my energy outlasted theirs. Their exhaustion was biblical, coming on the seventh day.

They went on strike. “We are NOT LEAVING THIS APARTMENT.” So we hunkered down and rested, knowing that the city marched on outside our window on West 44th Street without us.

We each had different favorites in the city this week. I loved the peaceful walk down Riverside Park at dusk, a place I’d never gone in all the times I’ve been to New York.

Christopher’s favorite was the Intrepid, where our boys learned about Kamikaze pilots, nuclear submarines, and other light-hearted things. 

Dylan’s Candy Store was the predictable hit for the boys, and the dancing splashing fountains in Battery Park were a welcome relief after the Ellis Island museum and an unusually rocky ferry on a warm summer day.

By the time they pooped out on our last day in New York City, we had a few things left on our list still undone: Walk along the High Line (free!); Kayak the Hudson (free!); take the ferry to and ride bikes on Governor’s Island (free!).

All will be saved for next time. Because while New York waits for no one, it always welcomes you back. It is like a party that’s still going after you’ve returned from a refreshing nap, a favorite movie you watch years later and find, to your great joy, not only does it hold up, it has gotten even better.­­­

Next stop: R&R in New Hampshire

A Bad Idea Gone Good

Q: When four adults confront a 5-day forecast that includes thunderstorms Monday afternoon and sunny skies the rest of the week, what activity do they choose for Monday?

A: Floating down the Delaware River for three hours in innertubes.

Emboldened by our rain-free bike ride yesterday, and with a mantra that “those forecasters are always wrong,” we set out for Frenchtown, New Jersey, site of Delaware River Tubing. Leaving no margin for error, “we” (by which I mean, of course, not me) reasoned that if we started by 10 a.m., we’d be out before the predicted storm.

The friendly kids at Delaware River Tubing gave us an innertube, a smile, and a ride to the river.

Our floating parade began under sunny skies, moderated by clouds that kept us thankfully cool. The river was as lazy as they come, making me laugh at myself for thinking this might be a dangerous endeavor.

Then the thunderstorm caught up with us. Suddenly no one could remember whether it was safer to be exposed in the middle of the river, or sheltered near the river banks and all its trees. We strenuously paddled to a happy medium, appreciating that the storm added drama to what otherwise would have been an uneventful pleasure ride. What better than a brush with danger to sear a memory into permanence. The lightning caught especially caught Emmett’s attention.

Tonight, however, safe at home, rejuvenated by warm baths, soft pajamas and a delicious dinner of corn, tomatoes and chicken any locavore would love, Emmett stated his opinion of the day in simple but clear terms: “Let’s do it again tomorrow.”