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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Temperatures are climbing into the 90s here in the DC suburbs , and the cicadas are getting the message: it’s time. The pace of their emergence is accelerating. Each morning brings a bigger crowd of Brood Xers in various stages of their short above-ground lives. Yesterday, for the first time, we noticed that their characteristic buzzing could be heard in our neighborhood. At first, it might be mistaken for the roar of highway traffic a few miles away, or heavy machinery droning in the distance. Today it’s much louder. Our daughter could hear the sound over the phone as I stood on the porch talking with her. We were discussing the logistics of our attending her graduation ceremony tomorrow in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia. The last appearance of Brood X coincided with her Kindergarten orientation. Taking stock of one’s life in seventeen-year spans is a daunting exercise, one I may attempt in a future post.
As our yard fills up with more cicadas, I notice that they seem smaller and more delicate than I remember. Was it just because in our daughter’s little five-year old hands, the insects looked larger in 2004? I don’t think so, because I saw them in my full-grown hands, then and now. Is it that our our memories naturally tend toward exaggeration and hyperbole? I don’t know. I only know that I was expecting bulkier, more substantial creatures. Those I’m seeing now seem almost dainty.
Today in 2021, I’m struck by their vulnerability. Maybe I feel this way simply because I’m older. Or because the covid pandemic has kept reminding me, and all of us, for over a year, of life’s fragility. I certainly don’t remember encountering so many struggling cicadas. Repeatedly, I come across those having difficulty emerging from their shells. They appear to be stuck, not quite in and not quite out. Did the long spell of cooler-than-usual weather adversely affect their ability to molt? Others have successfully exited their exoskeletons, but they’re physically challenged in various ways. A wing is twisted, folded, malformed or too small. I found one that appeared to be miniature in all aspects except for its head and eyes. What a cutie it was, with a short body and tiny wings that looked to be edged with frills and coated in golden dust. And all around, I see cicadas that appear to be perfectly formed, yet having considerable difficulty adjusting to the new life phase. With every glance at our front porch, I see one or more flipped on its back, legs moving frantically in the air. I see some that have lost half their body to a predator, yet continue, doggedly, to crawl. Our lawn teems with nymphs and the newly molted attempting to maneuver through a hostile terrain of grass blades. I avoid walking through the yard, even though I want to check out the cicada action around our silver maples. My husband debates how best to time his mowing of the lawn. When will the massacre it entails be less pronounced?
I’m hoping that once the Brood X onslaught is in full force, there will be so many cicadas around that those facing hardship will be less evident. With temperatures expected in the high 80s over the next week or so, we should soon be entering peak emergence. Until then, though, I’ll continue to commiserate with all the struggling cicadas I see. I will attempt to rescue some, just as I occasionally move a worm from the middle of the street. It’s not that I place such an extraordinarily high value on the lives of these insects. It’s not that I deem them more important than people. Quite the opposite. It’s that, in their struggles and frailties, I see those of humankind. In their vulnerability, as well as in their persistence, I see the human condition.
This afternoon, on a very slow, hot walk with Kiko, I came across a cicada in the road. It looked healthy. I picked it up, and it buzzed vigorously in my hand. I took the perky little guy to a nearby tree, where he left my finger easily and began walking up the trunk with confidence. I saw, or imagined, a peppy spring in his step. This one would seize his hard-won day in the sun. I returned home feeling optimistic, for Brood X as well as for my human brothers and sisters.
As May begins, spring’s high quality production design continues unabated here in Northern Virginia. The season’s talented ensemble cast rarely misses a cue, despite unpredictable working conditions such as drastic shifts in temperature, a sudden hailstorm, and recent wild, gusty winds. The players function together beautifully, keeping the audience amused and all senses invigorated.
The Appalachian redbud by our back porch brought out a striking profusion of bright fuchsia jewel-like buds, just as we’ve come to expect.
Looking a bit like tiny pink chili peppers, the flowers glow with near iridescence in the afternoon sun.
The redbud takes an inventive approach to her adornment, sprouting small bouquets of varying sizes directly from her trunk.
The little sassafras tree in our front yard was damaged last year by a heavy branch that fell from one of the silver maples. Nevertheless, she produced the annual show of frilly pale yellow flowers. Their lemony scent is subtle yet pervasive.
The camellia tucked into a corner at my mother’s house played her part with exuberance. Her limbs were gracefully bowed down by an abundance of ruffled, boldly colored blossoms.
The taller, grander daffodils in our front-yard patch took their time in blooming, letting the miniature Tête-a-têtes set the stage and enjoy their time in the limelight. When the big girls arrived, they were elegantly dressed in their Cinderella ball gowns.
The azaleas, among the season’s dependable stars, are just past peak bloom. A coral pink variety is luminous in the early morning light.
As heart-shaped leaves replace the blooms on the redbud, the spent flowers fall onto the creeping phlox below.
Creeping phlox is known and admired for its carpet-like effect. Together, the many little flowers, popping out from wiry foliage, can create a lovely cascade over a low wall in a rock garden. But each bloom in itself is a miniature marvel. Each flower has five delicate, double-lobed petals and a center resembling a tiny star or snowflake, with a ring of double markings surrounding bright yellow stamens.
And then there are the lilacs, the signature flower and fragrance of mid-spring. I love lilacs. The petite, perfect, four-petaled blooms remind me of icing flowers my daughter and I used to squeeze out of a pastry bag to decorate cupcakes. I love the way they cluster together to form larger entities. Each lilac bush is composed of communities of small flowers working together. I’ve written before about my sentimental appreciation of lilacs. They carry me back to childhood and my grandparents’ beloved old Kentucky home. They remind me of living outside Princeton when my husband and I were newly married. They’re a token of a dear friend, long gone from this world. To me, they evoke home, happiness, and the warmth of belonging. When I realized that lilac leaves were sprouting from the long gray stems of a previously unidentified shrub in the front yard of our house twenty years ago, it was another sign that we had moved to the right place. That old lilac bush has had its ups and downs, and this is a down year. With luck and a substantial pruning, it may be revitalized, as has happened before. Two years ago, we planted another lilac in the back yard, and it has flowered beautifully. A third near our porch is a later blooming variety. A house surrounded by lilacs is truly home sweet home.
Spring’s final act will soon begin. All around, the roses are budding, preparing for their big scenes. The peonies will follow shortly. And this year, a special insect guest readies itself for an historic entrance. For the past seventeen years, Brood X cicadas have been waiting underground in the wings (and for their wings), rehearsing for the literal role of a lifetime. With each warm day, their emergence draws closer. The season’s dependable cast of unique characters will take it all in stride. The show must go on.