Category Archives: Family

A Snowy Start for 2022

The first two days of 2022, here in Northern Virginia, like those at the close of ’21, were damp, gray and mild, with temperatures reaching the mid-60s. There was talk of snow to come, but it seemed highly unlikely. The pattern of dull, sunless days had been established; it was hard to conceive of it ever changing.

But just as predicted, snow began falling in the early-morning darkness of January 3rd, accumulating quickly.  It coated the bleak landscape with glistening white frosting that piled up, and up, elegantly and artfully.

Our yard and house soon acquired the Christmas-card aspect they had been missing all during December.

Kiko’s first steps in the snow were tentative and uncertain. Mine were, as well. The older we both get, the more actively I work to avoid a fall. Our morning walk was slow and halting, as I tried to keep him off the many icy spots on the road.

Once we made it back to the fresh snow near the house, he embraced it gleefully. Seeming to regain his youth, he pounced like a fox through the soft powder.

At sunrise and sunset, sky and snow tend to take on a luminous pink glow.

On the night of January 6th, our old house gleamed as white as the snow. Now that all twelve days of Christmas have come and gone, our exterior illumination is history. I’m always sad to hear that final click of the lights as they go dark, not to shine again for another eleven months. I’ll keep the decorated trees up for a while. Their soft light will be a much-needed comfort in the winter darkness to come. For now, the brightness of the snow, visible through the windows, provides some extra consolation.

I can’t help thinking about how much our daughter would have appreciated being at home for this particularly lovely snow. A few years ago, she would have reveled in the luxury of a few days off school, with time to savor the glories of the surrounding winter wonderland. But she returned to Maryland on Sunday, and awoke the next morning, as we did, to the blanket of white. We swapped snow pictures. Her days of simply cavorting in the snow on a weekday are largely in the past. The demands of the job were calling, a job not well-suited to remote working. Her car, in the uncovered garage, would have to be dug out. It’s too bad that no one thought to send her back to her apartment with a snow shovel. She used a dust pan instead.

But hey, I’m impressed. I didn’t know our girl owned a dust pan. Clearly, she’s an adult now.

Tis the Season?

Christmas is five days away.  Every year around this point, I ask myself: how can this be?  How can Christmas be upon us?  But this year, more than ever, time seems slippery, unreliable, prone to eccentricity.  Yesterday seems like a month ago, yet wasn’t Halloween just last week?  Is it because of my advanced age?  Is it because of sudden and broad temperature fluctuations?  In a typical seven-day span, here in Northern Virginia, we experience weather appropriate for all four seasons, sometimes in a single day.  Is it because we’re approaching our third Covid winter, and the weeks and months are draped in a veil of sameness? 

It’s certainly not because I’ve neglected the usual Christmas prep. I haven’t, and it’s kept me too busy to write. The evidence of the season is all around me, but still, this mid-December has an air of unreality. Something just seems off.

After further reflection, I think it may be this: the back-of-my-mind awareness that our daughter will no longer be joining us for an extended winter break. The Christmas season, in recent years, has begun in earnest for me with her arrival home from college. Last year, it started with her final online exam, as she was already here. I think what I’m missing now is the anticipation of having her back with us for about a month. That extra spark of excitement is absent.

At this realization, I had a mental pep talk with myself. Our daughter will be coming home soon, for about a week. She can’t stay longer because she’s gainfully and happily employed. (I’ve never held a job that ticked both boxes.) She’s embarked on a career that relies upon her training. This is why she went to college. At least it’s why the time, trouble and expense of college can be justified. All those demanding classes in aerospace engineering and astronomy are being put to good use. And while she’s a Maryland resident now, she’s closer to home than she was in Charlottesville. When she first began applying for jobs, my husband and I both feared that she’d find it necessary to move to the West Coast. In the rare absence of traffic, she can drive home in about an hour.

So I’m a lucky mama. We should see our dear daughter in two days. And then Christmas Vacation will officially begin.

As my mother reminds me, having recently watched a PBS show about the medieval origins of the twelve days of Christmas, December 25 is only the first day of the festive season. I’ve got plenty of time to get that spark of excitement back. In fact, I’m starting to feel it already.

The spirit of the season is popping up in unexpected places. Here, for example, is a radish that resembles a little head in a pointed elf cap.

The halls have been decked. It’s time to savor the joy of Christmas.

This morning’s full moon, not long after sunrise.

A Pilot in the Family, on Veterans Day, 2021

Thank you, this Veterans’ Day to all those who put their lives on the line to defend our country and our freedom. My father is the first veteran in our family that I typically think of on this day set aside to honor those who’ve served. My Uncle Bill is the second. Daddy was stationed in Regensburg, Germany, with the U.S. Army Occupational Forces following World War II. My mother’s brother, Bill, enlisted at sixteen and served as a Frogman in the Pacific.

While looking for a photo of Daddy or Uncle Bill to post on Veterans’ Day, I came across a picture of another family member in a military uniform. I don’t recall my father ever mentioning his distant cousin, Hunter, above. According to the inscription on the back of the photo, in Daddy’s neat handwriting, Hunter was a Lieutenant in the Air Service during World War I. He was born August 30, 1895 in Jane Lew, West Virginia, which is also my grandmother’s home town. He survived the war, and died at age sixty-five on May 9, 1960 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He’s buried in Arlington Cemetery. The photo bears no date, but it must have been taken in 1917 or ’18, when he was twenty-two or twenty-three. When he was my daughter’s age.

I learned from another cousin that Hunter was the son of my great-grandmother’s brother, which makes him my grandmother’s first cousin. He was married in 1922 to a woman named Marion, and together they had at least one child, a son. I wish we knew more about Hunter’s experiences during the war. I wish I could read some of his letters home, as we’ve read my Uncle Bill’s. I wish we knew more about Hunter’s later years, as well. I hope he has grandchildren now keeping his memory alive. I hope they have photos that document other notable stages in their grandfather’s life. But I’m grateful that at least I have this lone visual record, this window into Hunter’s young adulthood, when he was a dashing pilot in jodhpurs and goggles, striking a jaunty pose before climbing into his plane to do his patriotic duty. Thank you, cousin Hunter, for your youthful confidence and courage. I hope it stood you in good stead throughout your life.

Halloween 2021

The last time our daughter was home for Halloween was in 2017, her senior year in high school. Her return for the recent holiday weekend therefore seemed extra special. Slim was eager to see our daughter, as well. He recognized her as his ideal partner in preparing for all things Halloween. She is nearly as big a fan of the day as he is. Ever since she was a toddler, Halloween anticipation has begun for her in the summer. (See Friendly Ghosts of Halloweens Past, October 2013.)

In 2020, because of Covid, young parents in our neighborhood organized a Halloween parade, with all trick-or-treating outside. The kids progressed from one end of the neighborhood to the other, to tables set up by families in front of their homes. It worked so well and was so enjoyable that they decided to do it again this year. I liked it because it made it easier to appreciate the costumes and gave more time to chat with kids and their parents.

Our daughter was determined to make our Halloween display as thorough as possible. Slim was equally zealous, of course. Together, they hauled out all the old, mostly homemade decorations that D recalls fondly from her childhood: Fred, the stuffed dummy, the tombstone and graveyard fencing, various skulls and bones, jack-o’-lantern votives, spiders and spiderwebs. They festooned our tables for treats in appropriately witchy garb. They set up the fog machine and an outdoor speaker for projecting spooky sounds. They rolled out the love seats from the garage so we could be comfortably seated during the parade. This persuaded even my mother to join us. When we began to see the children approaching, Slim climbed up in a cherry tree, and D, wearing the gorilla costume that we just happen to have, hid herself from view.

Our daughter, quietly channeling her inner gorilla.
A tense moment.

As each group of children chose their treats, my husband, holding a heavy chain, would ask, “Has anyone seen my pet gorilla?” Then D would pop up from behind the love seat and jump around. The performance was well-received, usually with genuine surprise. No one was overly frightened, which was as intended, but one little boy asked his mother to remain close by his side as he got his candy. Several trick-or-treaters, and possibly one parent, wearing an inflatable T-Rex costume, engaged in high-spirited dance-offs with the gorilla.

Thanks to our friendly neighborhood, the parade, to the presence of Slim and our daughter, this Halloween was one of the happiest I can remember. It was rewarding to see just how many children live among us. We were impressed by the innovative costumes, on both kids and adults. How satisfying it was to see neighbors out socializing as they provided treats. As Slim likes to remind us, Halloween has evolved from an ancient Celtic harvest festival into a day when we affirm our common humanity through a love of sugar. It’s a day to welcome back, unapologetically, the child that abides within us, no matter our age. A time to share some sweetness and joy with others, simply because we’re God’s children here together. After all, it’s the custom to give candy not only to those we know personally, but to everyone who stops by.

It was a perfect top-off to the evening when a small Superhero jumped out of a highly decorated SUV and brought us a festively wrapped bottle of sparkling wine. We’d won one of the prizes for best display. Our daughter’s and Slim’s efforts had paid off. We’d given treats, and we got a treat. That, my friends, is Halloween, isn’t it?

More fun with the Skeleton Crew

Slim was more than excited to learn that Trunk or Treat at our church was back on this year, after being Covid-canceled in 2020.

He jumped for joy when he heard that our daughter would be returning from Maryland for Halloween weekend. He hadn’t seen her since he popped in on her unexpectedly in Charlottesville in 2018 for Trick or Treating on the Lawn. (See here and here.) On a beautiful Saturday, with perfect fall weather, D joined Slim, me and the pack in the church parking lot, to greet and provide candy fuel to a large and enthusiastic crowd of happy, creatively-costumed kids and their families. After so much isolation during the darkest days of the pandemic, the gathering was especially cheery. The rousing music provided by our church pianist from a keyboard in the back of his pick-up truck served to further heighten the mood. Slim sang along with every tune, as his musical reportoire is vast.

On the ride home, he was simply giddy. I repeatedly had to remind my rowdy passenger to remain seated. He waved eagerly at passing cars and emitted celebratory whoops, hoots and hollers. He belted out a steady stream of snippets from his favorite party songs: Cel-e-brate good times, come on! . . . Let’s paint the town! And shut it down! . . .We’re gonna party like it’s 1999! . . I got me a car, it seats about twenty, so come on and bring your jukebox money! . . .Well, I’m just out of school, like a real, real cool. Gotta dance like a fool, Got the message that I’ve gotta be a wild one, Oh yeah, I’m a wild one. . .

Yes, that Slim, he’s a wild one. But his is a sweet, innocent wildness, like that of a child. And his humor is infectious; he can bring a smile to even the dourest of faces. I’m glad he’s here. Everyone needs a friend like Slim.

Once home, he whistled for the pack to join him in the annual Halloween joyride. The gang piled into my VW in a flash. Even Kiko moved briskly, which is unusual for our elder statesman these days. Time to cruise the neighborhood to promote more Halloween fun! The big day approached!

Welcoming the Skeleton Crew, 2021

Our old family friend, Slim, emerged from his state of semi-hibernation in early October, as is his custom.  After eleven months in the dim silence of my mother’s basement, he was a bit taken aback by the bright warmth of the autumn sunshine and the profusion of life that was bursting forth outdoors.

Quite the nature lover, Slim was amazed at the continued proliferation and abundance of our summer flowers. “Is it July?,” he exclaimed. Usually long gone by October, this year the impatiens have kept flourishing, and growing, their stems over three feet in height. They almost completely hide the fountain, providing a sheltering hedge for a pair of frogs who claimed it as a homestead. The frogs grew steadily and serenaded one another loudly for months. Now they watch over a bevy of tadpoles. Their well-being in the face of approaching cold weather has been worrisome for Slim. Because the fountain must be drained before temps dip to freezing, he has vowed to help us relocate our amphibian friends to the nearby creek.

On sunny afternoons, Slim could often be found soaking up the rays alongside the opulent petunias on Mama’s back deck. Loyal canine twins Rocky and Ruth were usually by his side.

Slim delights in the charms of seasonal decor. He put the finishing touches on the Halloween display around my most recently constructed dollhouse, placing a couple of tiny Sculpey-clay jack-o’-lanterns just so. He has a heart for little things as well as little critters, and no detail is too insignificant to escape his observant eye.

After Slim amped up the festive decorations on my mother’s kitchen table, it became one his favorite inside spots, for sitting, chatting, and watching the many birds at the feeder. He noticed before I did that the slate-colored juncos had returned. He offered helpful tips as I worked at a recent endeavor: trying to make iced sugar cookies that are decorative as well as tasty. With his assistance, my efforts improved. It shouldn’t have surprised me in the least to learn that he has a deft hand with a pastry bag.

Every night, Slim assumes a post at a front window, looking out on the neighborhood until drifting off to sleep and to sweet Halloween dreams. Seeing him there as I pass my mother’s house on Kiko’s last walk of the evening, I’m reminded of Riff Raff peering out of that upper window in Rocky Horror Picture Show, and his words echo in my head:

There’s a light. . .over at the Frankenstein place.

There’s a light. . . light. . .in the darkness of everybody’s life.

Past and Present, Wrapped up Together in our Summer Village on the Cape

Our family’s long-time summer destination sits on the skinny finger of land between Cape Cod Bay and Route 6A, or Shore Road. When seen from the water, the small cottages appear to be nestled between the sea grass and a low hill of dunes that rises along the banks of Pilgrim Lake.

As the aerial photo above shows, the complex resembles a miniature village. The look is classic Old Cape Cod. Basic, simple, absolutely without pretense. On each side of the central pool, two rows of white cottages, built in the 1940s, face a grassy, rectangular courtyard. Six additional cottages are covered in weathered cedar shakes. Constructed in the 80s, these are off the greens, clustered in the sand. In the broad expanse that leads to the water are two narrow boardwalks and a fire pit enclosed by a semi-circle of sturdy wooden chairs. The wide beach, unusual for the area, has grown much bigger over the years. When the colony was new, the high tide mark reached all the way up to the line where the beach grass begins now. It would seem that every bit of sand that’s continually swept away from the rest of waterfront Truro is being deposited here.

A trellis-topped archway and white picket fence mark the entrance to one of the greens.

The cottages farthest from the water have the benefit of being surrounded on all sides by a grassy lawn planted with bountiful hydrangeas.

The photo above shows the cottage that my family will probably always think of as “Grandma and Grandpa’s place.” It’s the one that my husband remembers as the vacation home from his childhood, beginning in the 1970s. His parents last occupied it in 2018. Sadly, that visit made it clear that their health issues had become too daunting to make the trip worthwhile.

There are several models of the white cottages. Those across each green are mirror images of one other.

The cedar-shingled cottage above is the one our family returns to in early August. It sits just in front and to the side of H’s parents’ old place.

A sandy lane separates this row of cottages from the pool. There are no paved roads in our summer village.

Just as I often expect to see my husband’s parents planted in their beach chairs every time I approach their old cottage, I can’t go to the pool without recalling the way our daughter, as a baby, delighted in the glistening, chilly water. The photo above shows her with my husband in 2001, on her very first visit to the Cape.

Nearly every spot in our pleasant village conjures an image of our daughter as she has been, over the years. I can see her at two and a half, sitting happily outside our cottage, talking to herself while pouring sand into a cup.

I remember her as a little girl, pausing on a sandy path leading to the water, a wistful expression on her face.

I see her as a young teenager, the summer before she began middle school.

All the while, I see and give thanks for the strong, compassionate, intelligent young woman she has become. Here she is this August with Dozer, one of the owner’s dogs.

As our daughter has grown, and as my husband and I have simply aged,  our summer village has changed only minimally.  Here in this timeless place, more than anywhere else, I hold simultaneously in my mind’s eye the various stages of our family’s life.  With our every return to this sliver of sandy ground that floats serenely between sea and sky, I feel what it means to be young, to be old, and everything in between, and even beyond.  The day will come when H and I, like Grandma and Grandpa, no longer make the trip.  Will there be a time when our daughter gazes at the sunset over the Cape while watching her own child contentedly pouring sand into a cup?  I think I can see that, too.  

Back on the Cape, One Constant in an Ever-Shifting View

Last summer, the pandemic interfered with our annual trip to Cape Cod.  For the first time in twenty years, our family failed to spend part of August at the modest little cottage complex in Truro that we love so well. My husband began going there with his parents and siblings when he was a little boy.  Our journey to the Cape is not just a vacation; it’s more like a pilgrimage.  That narrow ribbon of land, curved like a hook into the bay, is, to us, if not quite the promised land, then something quite close to it.  Certainly it’s a second home.  We have no financial claim to any bit of real estate there, but we’re loyal renters.  More importantly, as pilgrimage sites do, the place has claimed us as its own. 

When we return, we go back to the same waterfront cottage, at the same time every year. We reconnect with many of the same families. We look out to a vast expanse of sand that leads to Cape Cod Bay, framed on each side by islands of sea grass and wild roses. The spare, simple skyline of Provincetown, about a mile away, appears to float atop the water. Its most distinctive feature, appropriately, is the tall, granite bell tower that commemorates the arrival of the original Pilgrims to the area, in 1620. Five weeks before landing at Plymouth, the Mayflower docked at what is now Provincetown Harbor. Due to rough weather, the ship had missed its mark in Northern Virginia. Anchored far north in Massachusetts, where the contract the Pilgrims had signed with the Virginia Company was deemed void, the group determined “to covenant and combine . . .together into a civil body politic,” to maintain order and the common good. So it was in Provincetown that the Mayflower Compact, an early and largely successful attempt at democracy, was written and signed. The Pilgrim Monument, now the symbol of the town’s warm, accepting and all-inclusive spirit, reminds us that great things are possible when we work together. For residents and returning pilgrims like our family, it’s a welcoming beacon. I love it that the tower is the anchoring feature in the ever-changing view from our little cottage.

The Pilgrim Monument was completed in 1910. Its design was based on the civic symbol of Siena, the 14h century Torre del Mangia in the Piazzo del Campo, the town’s main square. Other features of Provincetown’s narrow silhouette are two water towers, several church steeples, and the Town Hall tower.

Our view toward the bay varies minute by minute with the shifting of the light, the play of the clouds and the passage of the hours.  The ethereal, transformative quality of Cape light has long made this area a favorite destination for artists. Above, around noontime, the sun glints off sparkling blue water, and a line of clouds hugs the horizon, in an otherwise clear sky.   

On partially overcast afternoons, the water tends to turn silvery, like a sea of mercury. It’s often on days like this that the wind picks up, and my husband, and also now our daughter, may be out windsurfing.

One evening toward sunset, a sky resembling orange sherbet settled above the town’s dark silhouette and a bay of molten lead.

The color of the sand is changeable, as well. In early mornings and late afternoons, it may take on a peachy pink cast, as in the photos above and below. The dark patches of seaweed that litter the beach no doubt seem unsightly to some. But we’ve grown so used to it that it’s no longer remarkable. It’s just more evidence of the abundant life that thrives in and around the bay.

Windsurfing boards await my husband and daughter.

Occasionally, as a storm or dense fog moves in, all the towers of Provincetown are rendered completely invisible. 

To me, the loveliest time of the day is just before sunset, when the shadows in the sand turn a magical, brilliant blue.

Sunset itself, on every clear day, is an event that brings our small, enduring community outside in admiration and awe. The sky often glows with streaks of increasingly fiery red, orange and yellow. And then, as the brilliant colors gradually dissipate, and Cape light fades into Cape night, the Pilgrim Monument is illuminated. Its white granite glows clean and bright against the dark sky. The tower is typically the last thing I see before I close my eyes at night. How comforting to know it is there, a reassuring beacon at all hours, in all weathers and seasons.

Still Here

September is here, and another summer has passed in a blur.  The view out every window in our house today is likewise blurry.  The panes are wet and foggy in the aftermath of last night’s ferocious storm.  As the remnants of Hurricane Ida passed through our area, I held my frightened dog as close as I could.  For the first time in all his fourteen years, Kiko put his head right beside mine on my pillow.  When he was younger, I might have said absolutely not: that’s too much doggie closeness.  But last night, his little body, which trembled violently with every pulse of lightning, felt thin, fragile, and frail.  My elastic, invincible puppy had long ago morphed into a senior dog.  Very recently, he’s become an old man, often stiff, uncertain and hesitant.  And in that middle-of-the-night angst that seizes me occasionally, my dog wasn’t the only one needing comfort.  The strobe-effect lightning, the crashing thunder and the pounding rain seemed like a frenetic, wailing choral expression of world-wide pain. 

There is more than enough grief and suffering to go around, these days.   We’re eighteen months into a pandemic that continues to wreak havoc when it should be winding down.  Every snippet of news, every glimpse of a headline, attests to some novel catastrophe of global proportions.  Raging wildfires.  Sudden, unpredictable floods.  Another day, another mass shooting.  Young lives tragically lost in the very last gasp of our twenty-year conflict in Afghanistan, and so many lives in peril now because the war is over.  Everywhere, peace is more elusive and unlikely than ever.  If Edvard Munch were alive today, his most well-known work, The Scream, might be a long series of paintings.  All of these sad and frustrating thoughts swirled in my head as I cuddled my dog during the storm.    

With the morning light, dully yellow-gray as it was, the world never seems quite so hopeless.  My dog is still old, but he’s no longer shaking with fear.  Surviving a storm typically reinvigorates him temporarily.  The news is still mostly bad, of course.  And there is this significant transition to reckon with: our daughter has moved to Maryland and started her job. The summer flew by in a blur because there was so much to do as we anticipated and prepared for this major change.  We were busy.  And now that long-awaited change is here.  The new life phase that our daughter begins is brimming with purpose and meaning: a new address, the start of a career, a time to chart her own unique course, one no longer set by her parents.  And what of us, her mother and father, now true empty-nesters?  We’re elated for our daughter.  And anxious, as well.  We’ll be cheerleaders for her, certainly.  But what will we make of our new life phase?  Will we find ways to fill it with purpose and meaning?  That will be our challenge in the coming days.  That, and dealing with our elderly dog.    

Father’s Day 2021

My father and I at my grandparents’ home in Lebanon, KY, ca. 1965.

Hats off to all the men who make the little people in their lives feel welcome, loved and safe, the way I felt in my dear daddy’s arms.  Cheers to the good guys who have the strength and courage to be kind, nurturing, supportive, and occasionally vulnerable.  May the blessings you provide be returned to you with interest.  Happy Father’s Day, fathers and fatherly men!