Sunday, May 14, 2017

All the Mothers' Day, 2017

Aunt Susan, me and Aunt Ruth

Mia and Aunt Joan
No one can replace your mother, but you can be loved and mothered by many. People commonly use the village metaphor, but the baker in me prefers to think of this cobbled together love as the pieces of a pie. Many women in my life, friends, cousins, aunts have all filled in the circle of need for me. Men too, my husband, colleagues, teachers, even works of art and yes, even my children. Here has been unconditional love, there has been rich compassion, here gifts and hugs and advice, over here has been silent understanding. There was a woman in New Orleans in the summer of 1986; I sat in her kitchen and she asked me about my life with immediate intimacy and made me feel so welcome and wanted, I will never forget her.

My mother's sister and my father's sisters have been the biggest slices of goodness and giving in my life. They all rose to help and teach me. Aunt Ruth, of course, did the lion's share of raising me, bless her. Aunt Susan babysat my siblings and me before and in the weeks after my parents' disappearance; her gentleness has always been a balm when I see her. My father's lovely sister Joan opened her home and her heart to me so many times; she left us in 1994 and we miss her so much. I have another Aunt Joan, my mother's only sister, and while we love each other, I know that that love is mixed with an amount of unavoidable pain. We look at each other and we both see shadows of Bernadette.

There's a boy at school who lost his mother this winter is the worst way possible -- suddenly, violently and in the next room. I don't feel right telling him my story; we are not that close, but when I ran into him in the hall on Friday, I pulled a box of Thin Mints out of my bag and pressed it into his hands. He was walking with another teacher when I passed him going the other way -- it looked something like an escort during the passing period. He had some new marks on his face.  

"Thin Mints!" he said. "Ms. Fey, I love you." "I love you, too" I called as I went on to the tutoring center. I had been hoping to run into him and had put aside the cookies just in case of a chance meeting. It wasn't much but I know how agonizing a holiday can be.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Romeo and Juliet Breaks My Heart (In a Good Way)

I must must must tell you a story about our Reading class where the freshmen have been struggling with Romeo and Juliet for the last few weeks. The text grows more and more beautiful every time I read it, but you know, for these kids the language is largely impenetrable, and the text is a dense ancient wood with only a few shafts of comprehensible light in the darkness. So we work our way through, translating, trying to give the kids as much info as we can reading out loud and watching movie clips and reading the ever-helpful graphic novel and slogging away, line by line by line.

So I've got to tell you about the wonderful day in First and Second Period when we put the kids in groups with a section to paraphrase into their own words, then act out for the class. We were working with Act III, Scene 1, where Romeo's friend Mercutio is killed by Juliet's fiery cousin Tybalt in a street fight, setting in motion the final inevitable cascade of tragedy.

The scene opens with Mercutio, our resident jester, teasing the good Benvolio by accusing him of being a hot-headed fighter. Now we all know that dear Benvolio only raises his sword to part fighting fools so this speech is a gentle joke at the expense of a friendly and favored character.

(Whenever I think about Benvolio, I think of a freshman I had in 2002, the ego-less and cooperative quarterback on the freshman football team, who asked me, "Hey Ms. Fey, why can't you keep teaching after you have your baby?" And he laughed with wide eyes and a big open-mouth smile when I said, "I could! But I want to take care of the baby. And they eat about twelve times a day! And they POOP about twenty!")

Adorable Dash Mihok as Benvolio in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film version Romeo + Juliet

So our freshmen were working in groups on their passages and Sugar, Dristian and Mayla were grappling with these lines:

Thou art like one of these fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the table, and says, “God send me no need of thee!” and by the operation of the second cup draws him on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.

Am I like such a fellow?

Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy, and as soon mov’d to be moody, and as soon moody to be mov’d.

And what to?

Nay, and there were two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other. Thou? Why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast. Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes. What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel? Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarrelling. Thou hast quarrell’d with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath waken’d thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun. Didst thou not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter? With another for tying his new shoes with old riband? And yet thou wilt tutor me from quarrelling!

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Mesmerizing Luigi Sotille as Ned Alleyn playing Mercutio in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Shakespeare in Love

I sat with the three kids and told them my story about the quarterback and read them some of the lines with all the inflection and drama I could muster and they were totally getting it. "What's tavern?" asks Mayla and "What's hazel?" "What's quarrel?" We worked through it and it was so exciting to see the light break through. At the end of the period, Imee the English teacher collected their work and made a copy of the script for each kid in the group to perform the next day.

The day of performances one of the kids drew a background of houses and trees on the whiteboard and Christine the Reading teacher brought in placards with the characters names strung with yarn to hang around the kids' necks.

The three kids got up in front. Imee had put down a wide rectangle of purple duct tape on the floor to designate the borders of the stage. Dristian gave an overview of the scene, then Mayla as Benvolio and Sugar as Mercutio began the scene.

Mayla/Benviolio: Let's go home. The Capulets are looking for us. We don't want to start a fight.

Sugar/Mercutio: You are one of the angry people. You walk into a bar and pull out your knife for no reason.

Mayla/Benvolio: Am I that type of person?

They were doing great. Mayla put on a smile to show she how sweet Benvolio is. The irony in the casting was that this lovely girl is the one I need to remind nearly weekly to use her words instead of slapping other kids.

Sugar/Mercutio: You are as stubborn a-a-and moody as anyone in Italy. 

Sugar's stumble may have been because he was a little nervous. His one hand held his script, the other was tucked into the pocket of his red hoodie.

Mayla/Benvolio: And why is that?

Mayla gave Sugar the stinkeye.

Sugar/Mercutio: If there were two of you, you'd kill each other! You'd pick a fight with someone who has a bigger beard than you! You'd a pick a fight with someone who has the same hazel eyes as you. Your head is always thinking of fights, like an egg is full of meat. And like an egg, you always get beat!

And with the egg line, the class LAUGHS. They laughed, a quick little bubble of joy despite the rushed, monotone recitation, the swaying awkward stance of the actors distracted and concentrating by the work of reading, eyes down on their papers.

Sugar smiled as he continues: You'd  fight someone across the street because they woke up a sleeping dog. Didn't you fight someone for wearing a jacket before Easter? And another for wearing shoes with old laces? And you're teaching me how to fight?

Mayla/Benvolio: If I fight like you describe, I would be worthless.

Sugar/Mercutio: Oh yeah, you are worthless.

ANOTHER LAUGH! this time, with a taunting "uh-oh" and "oo" thrown in to heighten the tension.

Mayla/Benvolio: The Caps are coming.
Sugar/Mercutio: Let them come, I don't care.

Big applause and finger snaps. One of my favorite moments of the school year.

Friday, March 31, 2017

A South Florida Vacation with a Tween and a Teen

Travel with little kids is a different animal than travel a few years later and while you're grateful for the ease of what has loosened up, you can bear what's harder by knowing these are yhe last few trips you'll take together as a family, deep sigh.

Take the rooms. You used to be able to get by with two double beds snd s single bath for four, now you may need to dig deep and give the girls their space for the sake of peace snd sanity. So worth it to keep down the bickering and isolate girl mess.

All four of us smile at the sturdy toddler boy on our flight into Orlando who still qualifies for a lap seat on his patient momma, but I have amnesia about those days.

I hope you'll try downtown Orlando at some point; it is a real city, after all, and Spice is a cute spot next to Lake Eola to catch up with family after a stroll with the girls' grandma around the lake. Dear Grandma Lulu is fading away but her face still lights up when she sees her son and hears the greetings of her grandaughters. Our lakeside walk, past the familiar bandshell now painted rainbow bright in tribute to the Pulse victims, past the Sunday farmer's market, past egrets and swans both white and black, past turtles who sun themselves on mangrove roots we have no idea how they climbed, this walk gives us precious time together even if Grandma no longer speaks to with words. We describe what we see to her, like I did with the girls before they could speak, and she dozes a bit in the sun, as they did too, as I wheeled them through their new world.

We leave that afternoon for a three hour drive to Miami. Randy's playlist includes the Butthole Surfers' "Moving to Florida."

First thing you need to adjust to at the Fontainebleau is that bikinis are apparently acceptable everywhere and a little dab of crochet cover makes the trnsition to evening. Freak out a bit because DJ David Guetta played the nightclub here the night before we arrived and Frank and Sammy a few decades before that.

Did you know scenes from Scarface, The Bodyguard, The Sopranos, Goldfinger and that mesmerizing, hilarious American version of Jacques Tati, The Bellboy, were shot at Miami's Fontainebleau hotel? Ukraine-born Morris Lapidus designed the hotel which was completed in 1954 and the latest renovations have left the gorgeous mid-century modern details intact. The burnished stylized "F" shaped door handles look straight out of Rat Pack days, while the chandliers overhead in the lobby were reconceived by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei after Lapidus's originals. There's beautiful black and white bowtie marble floors in the lobby and elevators and a free-form version of the same signature bowtie in the shape of the largest of the several palm shaded pools.

You'll spend afternoon time with the kids in those pools, sipping orange water and giggling at all the Pitbull and Nicky Minaj lookalikes then you'll get a little overloaded and need something natural right over the dune where waves, sky, wind and views forever wait. The cute front desk had said the water was chilly for him but your pool warmed skin loves the bracing thrill and in a few minutes it's warm as a bath again. Floating in the turquoise are garlands of bronze lacy seaweed studded with tiny hollow berries that pop in a delughtful way betwwn my fingers.

But before the pool and beach there's a pilgrimage down to the Art Deco hotel row on Ocean Avenue. The girls may remain largely immune to the architectural joys of the rule of threes and the subleties of coral and sea foam pastel, but one block over lies shoppy shops to satisfy. Lunch could be Big Pink or Puerto Sagua, two stops I enjoyed with Aunt Ruth and Aunt Susan on Ruth's 90's birthday trip but we'll need to skip the wonderful Bass museum this time because it's closed for renovation.

Grab a Citibike from the rack, adjust the seats and off you go up the shady boardwalk between the sand and the hotels. Whee! The views of the beach on one side and glimpses of secret pool enclaves to the other side keep us entranced on the too short trip back up to Millionaire's Row. My favorite of the hotels? The Confidante, whose name in that kitchy Miami cursive font makes me sigh with pleasure.

The drive from Miami to the Keys turns scenic all at once when you turn on Card Sound Road running parallel to  Route 1. Deep mangroves line the narrow two lane road and Alabama Jack's, recommended by Orlando brother-in-law, pops up out of nowhere. An unassuming sign bext to the dumpster but the parking lot is full of cars. An old school open air crab shack on the water (do they call these watery mangrove mazes "bayous" like in Lousiana?) with beat-up lisence plates from every state nailed to the walls. My first blackened mahi mahi Rueben (delicious) and the girls' first taste of conch fritter, indistinguishable in its sweet crispy batter but still off-putting to our silly sqeamush girls.

A few more miles and we're at the Martha Stewart-recommended Playa Largo,


Yeah, it was a tough trip. I might write more about it later but for now, I'm just going to leave it at that.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Rickie Lee Covers

Not an Oscars post; I'm not so fleet nor confident a writer to be able yet to wrap my head and typing fingers around the awful conundrum of Manchester by the Sea. 

"Love the art, hate the artist" I told a co-worker lately about some other creepy celebrity but my rushed words were less thought out and more in sympathy for her grief over the destruction of a comforting father figure who had been what she needed when she needed him. I cannot take such facile advice right now, nor can I easily understand or forgive my hero and guide Ken Lonergan for hiring him. 

But forgiveness is the theme of the longer post I am wrestling with that links Manchester with its kindred film Ordinary People so give me some time, or don't, to work it out. Or not.

In the meantime, here is another awards show story that was an awesome moment for me recently.

I'm floating around Facebook on the night of the Grammys and spy a post from dear Rickie Lee Jones herself, who somehow accepted my friend request to my delight a while back, and who won her own set of Grammys for Best New Friggin' Artist in 1980 AND Best Jazz Vocal Performance for a jubilant "Making Whoopie" with Dr. John in 1990, and who may have been reminiscing as she watched the same show I was watching at the same time. Her raw post: "I wonder why people don't cover my songs?"

It must have been the Bee Gees tribute that sent her over.

You may know that I ADORE Rickie Lee Jones. My daughter Mia's middle name honors Ms. Jones and her music has been a refuge and an answer and a cure in my life.  So witnessing her rueful moment gave me a flood of sympathy for a mature artist watching the new bright and shinys and also a flood of wonder that the modern world made possible this moment of intimacy with one of my brilliant musician IDOLS.

(The other is Joni Mitchell who describes a similar moment in the song "For the Roses." Now I sit up here the critic/And they introduce some band/But they seem so much confetti/Looking at them on my TV set)

I can't believe I'm saying this, but thank god for the comments. Below Rickie's post came the rush of fan and friend responses, a chorus of support speaking the truth that she is so singular and unique an artist and stylist that all imitation fails and pales. But here are a few that her fans offered that are lovely. And that highlight the brilliance of her lyric. Oh, enjoy, enjoy!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Arc and The Gyre

I turned 52 this month, this awful month when we said goodbye to our dear President and his beautiful family and now watch in horror the awful baseness that follows.

All the complicated feels accompany this birthday, including a daily dread at dawn temporarily lifted by quick good morning moments with the daughters and by my fast walk down the freshman hall arriving at work, coat and hat still on, down the freshman hallway where the fourteen year olds lounge, finishing homework or watching videos on their phones or squealing with joy while being showered with birthday hug and balloons, or once, strumming a ukulele.

These tall children, taller than me, are still sweet, still distracted and entranced by tiny pleasures, still open to the goodness of the world, still needing. They ask for Band-Aids, for candy, for breakfast, for stressballs to squeeze as they work. The ninja Band-Aids I found at Paper Source charm them; they really just want a sticker.

I smile when I am with these adolescents, I smile as I walk down the hall, I smile because of them and I smile for them.

They are still sweet and I am working to hold on to that sweetness because bitterness is so close to the surface right now and I've discovered this gob-smacked season that there are worse ways to become than the peppery anger bite of bitter.
Pence Protest

There is sour. Apathetic, cynical fat-free-plain-yogurt-water sour. I woke that clear November morning after the monster got his 62 million votes and waited for the quiet to be broken by sirens. Knew they were coming.

It's the last thing I want to become in this second half of life, (please let this be the second half.)

At this age I'm trying for unagi instead of sour, if I can, if my senses and pleasures are dulling, at least leave me the good meaty richness of work and sustenance and love as a verb and comfort in our daily family rituals, dinner and dishes, homework, reading, our ablutions before bed as the girls and I meet in the hall with their hairbrushes to compare how little Nora still is and look Mia, touch this! how soft Nora's cheek still is and has Mia grown taller than me yet?

The girls don't remember any president but Barack. I do, all the way back to a fuzzy memory of sitting on the floor in front of my grandmother's black and white TV and watching Richard Nixon resign. But even though Reagan and Bush and Bush were painful, they were men who knew the meaning and responsibility of being "public servants." Not this one.

Please let me see this unexpected curve in the road, this car-wrecking turn for the fragment that it is, a brief pang of pain in America's long life.

I have a choice here. To either see this curve as a part of Yeats's gyre, the monumental rotation of a world spinning off its axis. Or I can see the spiritual and literal darkness of this November, December, January, as an essential part of our color spectrum, an edge of the rainbow, a curve of time, the arc of the moral universe that continues and will continue farther than I will see.

Dr. King's principles of non-violence help me, especially number five and six:

Principle Five: Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence.

Principle Six: The universe is on the side of justice.

The fury I feel as I listen to the alternate facts, to the sycophants, to the enemies of logic and justice, this fury is a kind of violence I need to contain and understand. It can harm and exhaust me and those in my wake.

I call on my strength, the gift from the one who made me, loved me and then left me against her will. At the beginning of my life my mother worked the neighborhood, having conversations with parents in our neighborhood to consider desegregating the western Chicago suburbs. The Sunday before she took flight she worked Sunday School at our neighbor Catholic church, teaching the special needs children down the hall from my father, who had a class of his own.

I take to the street, join the crowd in the cold on Michigan Avenue in the shadow of the Fine Arts Club where Mike Pence is guesting a Republican fundraiser brunch. We shout in the cold, chant "Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay, Mike Pence, Go Away!" A Mike Pence imitator with the moniker Hot Pence runs around with silver fox hair, a suit coat and tie and bright red short-shorts.

Michigan Avenue March for Chicago murder victims
I pick up a wooden cross bearing a name of an 84 year old woman killed in Chicago this year. The cross is made of rough, unfinished wood. It's heavy. The woman standing next to me as we prepare to march has no gloves and puts down her cross to worry at a splinter. I give her an extra pair I have in my purse, then ask her little son to show me his hand-lettered sign.

I fly to DC, stay with my cousin Mickey, take a packed train from Reston, talk about the landed gentry origins of the conservative movement with a history teacher on the Metro, join the chanting crowds in a slow joyous shuffle up the escalators and out of the train station, all of us thrilled with the size of us all together, laughing at the excellent signs, the Lincoln and Hamilton costumes, the Sousaphone pounding our heartbeats and spelling out curses in lights from its black bell, the children, the helpful transit workers, the tables of Obama merch (I'm tempted to hug the sellers until I remember they were here selling Trump stuff the day before), the choirs, the marching drum ensemble, the Jumbo-trons and loud speakers, Michael Moore and Ashley Judd, Janet Mock and Van Jones and Maxwell's ethereal voice floating "This Woman's Work" over the crowd.

A lovely girl stops me and points to my Wear Orange hat. "Moms Demand Action!" she says and we trade excited updates, I missed the gathering at the Museum of the American Indian but there's a warming room at the Holiday Inn, she tells me, just show my hat and I can use the bathrooms and power my phone. I'm so grateful and that rest stop is deeply appreciated, the forty-five minute wait in line better than the pissing behind the parking garage option I hear about.

We start to hear about other cities but the overhead telephoto shots of thousands at a time will have to wait for the news tomorrow. Right now we can only feel the masses pressed together, "I can feel people's cell phones vibrating!" says a woman next to me, but no one feels crushed that I can see, even wheelchairs and motorized carts and double strollers are welcome in this tight scrum.

There are rumors that the march has been "cancelled," but we are still all pushing toward the Mall and once an ambulance nudges through, some invisible barrier is removed and we are moving, moving. I cross the Mall from Independence to Constitution, thrill to the Capitol and Washington Monument, join the stream again at the Museum of African-American History, call and sing and chant and yell "Black Lives Matter" with every punched word raging at the absurdity and bad faith and mendacity and doublespeak of Trump and his toadies and puppeteers. A giant Constitution is unfurled, signed by hundreds of living Americans. The crowd up 15th goes as far as I can see.

We maneuver around a corner, the crowd opens up and it's there, the Ellipse in front of the White House. A kind of destination, but despite the Wicked Witch costume and the young girl who borrows a phone to tell her contact, hilariously, "We're between the Washington Monument and the White House. Next to a police car," I am falling down a bit under this gray sky in the late afternoon. We press against the fence, toss the cardboard signs, chant, cheer, jeer, "Welcome to your first day! We will not go away!" We can see black fortified SUVs in front of the White House portico and those hanging lights within. I'm blue but I don't figure it out until I head back east and north up 15th past the rows of food trucks and back into another marching crowd up as close as we can get to 1600. A portable sound system on a cart pounds out Beyonce's "Formation" and we find voice enough to scream again, this time in joy. A moving, marching, street dance party.

When I first saw this woman, she was not smiling. We have much to do. But I understand now when I hit the Ellipse and stopped moving forward, the energy dissipated. Get up, stand up, keep going. We are in for a long, hellish haul. We're stronger together and we can, yes, we can.

* * *

I had a dream where I was struggling to enunciate my frustration: "I. Keep. Making. Sandwiches. And. They. Keep. Falling. IN. THE. GUTTER!" In my dream, I bade Nora help me, as I do so often at home. She grimaced at the soggy bread, the disintegrating tomato slice, the slimy meat piece, but reached out with her thumb and forefinger to pick up my sandwich out of the sandwich gutter.

Randy laughed at my retelling of the dream but it's symbolic of everything these days. Nora is still my little helper and there are going to be so many times I am irrationally in need of irrational help. She knows, and her big sister knows that Mommy will storm and the storms will pass, and they buckle down and believe me when I wail, "This is not about you! This is not your fault! You haven't done anything wrong!" Randy still sometimes pushes back against the wind although he was a wise wise man the week before my birthday and ignored my furious howl to "CANCEL THE RESERVATIONS!" during a spat about (get this) whether he shared responsibility for the guinea pig since he had suggested the girls get a gerbil or hamster.

"It's the same thing!" says Mia, sensibly, and permitting the girls to witness our squabble is both unavoidable in this small house and, I would argue, healthy for them to see how grown-ups can be both silly and forgiving.

So despite all, the reservation remained intact and Bad Hunter was an excellent choice for my birthday dinner, with sunchokes and what the waiter called "hyper-fresh" radishes and nori-butter.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Door County Vacation with Kids

I won't condemn the entire year; there was much joy and progress and good work and a delicious week with my grand-niece Caroline in Philadelphia and a blissful hiking trip to Bryce Canyon. But the election and its awful aftermath have kicked my ass so I will leave you this year with my happy memories of a few days of pleasure and play with my dear girls in Door County, Wisconsin.


The beginning of August. We only had a few empty days between the end of the girls' camps and the beginning of my school year. Pennsylvania and D.C. were calling but you can't get there from here in five days. Randy would take off work the next week to drive the girls to Mammoth Cave and other Kentucky sights while I went back to work. So I pulled Door County, Wisconsin off the To Do list, did a little research, a little online booking and the girls and I were off!

Martha Stewart told me about Milwaukee's Kopp's, the perfect pit stop for an amazing assortment of rotating ice cream flavors concoctions and a grilled cheese sandwich with something called hot celery. The crunchy chunks of celery bathed in hot sauce may not have enhanced the taste of the cheese but they were super interesting. An elevated row of cow statues were lined up on a wall behind the restaurant with a little sign imploring parents to keep their children from falling to their deaths.

Hamilton was on the soundtrack as we hit the road again on a long stretch all the way to Sturgeon. At the Visitor's Center we stocked up on brochures and maps and made some new friends when I said "Hi, Honey" to a person that seemed like tall Mia out of the corner of my eye. It turned out to be another mom and she laughed and said "Hi!" back and "That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all day" with a rolled eye toward her husband. We laughed together, waved to them in parking lot and hit the road again.

Cave Point County Park

We turned off the main road through the peninsula that goes on to Egg Harbor on the west coast and took 57 to the "quiet side" of Door County to the east. Pulled off at the Cave Point County Park and found a magical spot. We stepped out of the trees to find ten foot rocky cliffs and outcroppings protecting little coves by the lake. Brave teenagers were jumping off the cliffs into the water to our cheers. We climbed down the rock walls to the water's edge where plateaus of pitted stone made for treacherous walking. The water was cool, not cold, and the girls waded out a little, holding hands as the waves tried to push them over on the slick shallows. Further to the north we found a beach of stone cairn piles by the hundreds, an astounding sight.
Mia making an Instagram pose on Cave Point beach

Nora begged to swim but I was tired after the drive and we'd left our bathing suits in the car. I promised we would come back on another day.

We drove the last stretch through beautiful woods dotted with cottages small and large. Curtis Sittenfeld uses Door County as the stand-in for Kennebunkport, Maine in her novel American Wife, a fictional depiction of the courting and marriage of Laura and George Bush.  She portrays the "Bush" family estate as an expansive yet dilapidated compound where the family dresses up for dinner but share a single shabby bathroom with an unlockable door. I loved peering at secluded mansions through the trees and seeing the images I'd imagined come to life.

We drove through charming Bailey's Harbor, then finally reached Gordon Lodge in the late afternoon. An utterly charming restored resort beautifully situated at the mouth of North Bay. We stayed in a sweet room in the main lodge, a textbook example of how to modernize a mid-century one-story motor lodge with style. The screened back door of our room opened up to a view of the bay over an expanse of lawn and native flowers. The pool was steps away and beyond that, a picturesque pier protected a serene inner harbor.

Silly Nora and happy Mia in our cute Gordon Lodge room

Dinner was at the Top Deck Restaurant in their renovated boat house. A local cheese plate, tomato soup, and key lime pie with mocktails, pasta and steak for the girls.

The evening was balmy and the girls couldn't wait to get out on the water. We changed, then tore down to the beach to play with the paddleboards and kayaks waiting for us on the sand. The water was as clear and smooth as it was cool and the girls squealed at the schools of tiny fishes darting through the green pondweeds and grasses. We splashed and laughed on the paddleboards, then Nora's squeals tuned up to a higher key and the excitement on her face morphed into something frantic. Her life vest, a size too big, was buoyed up by her shoulders and her head was turned up toward the sky as she paddled as fast as fast as she could to the ladder on the pier. Mia and I were on a laughing binge but I tried to be sympathetic as Nora freaked out.

"What is it?"

She could only reply with weird high eeks. Mia translated: it was the eerie clarity of the water; we could see the forest of plants below us and feel them brushing our legs and imagine all sorts of creatures rising from the shadows.

We traded the lake for the pool, made some new Minneapolis friends, then more friends at the s'mores campfire and headed for bed.

Gordon Lodge sunset


I ate the rest of my key lime pie for first breakfast and grazed the resort buffet for seconds. We swam and kayaked again in the beautiful morning light. I wondered how far up the bay our rental cabin was and whether we could paddle all the way. (Gordon Lodge only had availability for one night and the  rental I found online was coincidentally just up the road.)

Showers and packing up, then heading back south to the Cana Island Lighthouse. A working lighthouse on its own tiny island accessible only by a wet gravel causeway that disappeared under the waves as we watched, waiting for the tractor and wagon to come and take us across. The rooms below were a treasure trove of the simple lifestyle of the lighthouse workers, with some original furniture, black and white photos and old stories of breathless rescues and tragic disasters. We climbed to the top of the spiral stair, peeking out the circular windows as we went, to find a work of the art, the giant lens that so magnifies a small bulb, it can be seen for twenty miles.

Cana Island Lighthouse lens

Cana Island Lighthouse spiral staircase

View from the Cana Island Lighthouse balcony

We were hungry and grumpy with all this activity before lunch, but Yum Yum in Bailey's Harbor cheered us up with their sandwiches, soup and candy sold by the piece. My nostalgic reaction to the liverwurst sandwich on the deli menu was a common one, the woman behind the counter told me. I had loved it on Wonder Bread with mayo. "Mothers gave it to their babies," she said. "Because it was so soft," I chimed in, like so many before me, I'm sure.

Mia spent long happy moments making her candy choices; I bought some challenging German licorice and cringed when the boy behind the counter touched each of the fudge types as he described them. "Finger fudge" we called it later and I loved the perfection of the match of the my all-time favorite candy: caramel-chocolate-pecan turtles met with the all-time dirtiest fingers in the world: those of an adolescent boy. When you're on a fabulous vacation, everything is new and novel and a reason to celebrate.

Gummy cherries from Yum Yum candy store in Bailey's Harbor

Small town post offices are always fun for meeting people and after mailing some postcards, we stopped at the Bailey's Harbor Historical Society next door for a bathroom break, a smaller scaled map and some great advice from a friendly local. "Try the Corsica bread," the guy told me when I asked about the Door County Bakery which I had found circuitously from the owners' adorable Airbnb rental that was a bit too small for our needs.

We would check out the bakery later but now we were off to our cabin, a tiny jewel of a family heirloom tucked into the trees with an old shuffleboard court and a gorgeous view of the bay. We explored all the sweet corners of the little house, from the cozy bunk beds to the elephant-themed bathroom to the shelves of well-loved books and toys and games. Across the quiet street to the stair to the rickety pier hung with sparkle lights to the water. We waded out over the smooth stones and beyond the reeds and the water never got much deeper than my waist. Laughing and splashing and loving the sensations.

Cappy Cottage, we called it "Crappy" out of love

North Bay

Dinner was a fifteen minute drive to the west side of the peninsula where the cute tourist towns of Ephraim and Fish Creek waited with their shoppy shops and busy restaurants. I came to Door County with two objectives: experience a fish boil of legend and see the famous goats on a roof. I don't remember how I found Pelletier's in Fish Creek and it was only later that dear friend Kristen told me she had worked at the same place summers in high school (small world moment!) but Pelletier's DELIVERED. The Palmer girl luck prevailed (as it so often does in claw machines and Cubs lotteries) and we arrived at the head of a line that formed behind us. The kids options satisfied the girls and the every-half-hour schedule reassured this hungry momma that Pelletier's knew what they were doing. Sure enough, the capable men in the backyard tending the giant pot of fish, potatoes, and onions were sufficiently burly, nimble and entertaining to please the crowd, manage a raging fireball at the climax of the boil and make us a damn good meal. Heaping plates of the perfectly cooked whitefish, sweet onions and tender potatoes, all bathed in butter, with black bread, coleslaw and shut up! Cherry pie for dessert made me very happy. Adventurous Mia nibbled a little and claimed it good and Nora was content with her mac and cheese.

Pelletier's Fish Boil

After dinner we did some Mommy-daughter shoppy shoppy to kill time before sunset, then noticed a strange brilliant light coming through the trees to the west. "The sunset! Hurry!" We made it to the beach in time, along with dozens of our tourist friends and ooed and ahed at the pretty.

Finally, a real smile from my cut up

Lovely Mia

The feature at the Skyway Drive-In Theater was The Secret Life of Pets,  a perfectly fluffy (oh god, sorry, not just for the groany pun but for yet another -ly adverb + adjective construction) diversion for the night when the venue was really the star, with the spectacular night sky overhead and a great view of the movie from the back hatch with the seats folded down to make a picnic/lounging area. The adorable snack bar had local cherry juice, yum! and popcorn with real butter! and Momma had remembered to pack the vitally needed (oh good god adverb + adjective!) mosquito repellent so a great time was had by all. We drove home in pitch dark and for once the Highlander's mapping system (on a CD! how 20th century) did not let us down.


We slept late, ahh, then drove in our jammies along North Bay, past adorable little vacation houses, a charming roadside treehouse the girls had to climb into, past the cutest two-story child-sized lighthouse, to the heralded Door County Bakery for breakfast. The sweet log cabin bakery lived up to our expectations and blew them away when Mommy got a bite of the famous Corsica Loaf, topped with sesame seeds and baked in oil, a soft and crunchy, crispy and oily experience that is crave-inducing once you've tried it. I swear, I dream about this bread.

The girls were happy with donuts and croissants and playing on the tractors out front and we spent a lazy morning at the cabin, swimming in the shallow, cool water of the bay and sunning ourselves like mermaids on the rocks.

View of North Bay across the street from our cabin

Around noon, we drove a few miles north to Sister's Bay on the west coast (really, everything is so close on this peninsula, getting everywhere is a breeze) and finally caught a glimpse of the Goats On The Grassy Roof of Johnson's Swedish restaurant, a sight so surreal in real life I had to doubt it for a moment. "Girls, is that a real goat? He's not moving. I think it's a statue. Wait. Did his ear move? Is it plaster with felt ears?"

Actual goat on Johnson's roof in Sister's Bay

Johnson's traditional Swedish menu didn't thrill the girls despite their heritage and an appeal to tell Grandpa Bob about the experience so we found the satisfying Wild Tomato down the street instead for pizza and salad, then hit the beach.

Can I just say how wondrously easy all this travel has been in high summer season? We park on the main drag, steps away from the water, and changed our clothes in the bathroom of a park district building. There are crowds at the beach, but just enough to make a party mood rather than a bother. Kids are doing flips off a pier into the crystal water; my girls are drawn to the fun but stick to running jumps, feet-first, holding hands to Mommy's delight. We rent a standup paddleboard and laugh ourselves breathless, screaming and splashing and squealing in the clear and placid water. There is enough of a breeze to push our paddleboard gently toward the pretty pleasure boats harbored on the other side of the diving pier, but that only adds to our challenge and our fun.

We head back to the car, discover a towel is missing, trek back to the bandshell where the girls played. Mommy gives the girls a mini-lecture about self-care and HALT, that is, while doing childcare, stop what you're doing to take care of yourself when you feel hungry, angry, lonely or tired. A well-intentioned motto I recited when I had my first baby and less than easy to do in the trenches, as any mother knows. Yay, we find the towel!

We drive south and catch a tantalizing glimpse of Fred and Fuzzy's lakeside restaurant through the trees but there's no parking and Tired Momma (see HALT above) needs someplace super easy so we put that lovely spot on the To Do Next Time list and head down the coast to Wilson's in Ephraim for dinner. Higher Standards Daddy would not have approved of this humble spot for a quick dinner but its ye-olde-red-and-white-striped-awning-patio-across-from-the-water charms work their way into our swim-sapped systems and we are revived with sandwiches and clown-shaped ice cream treats.

Wilson's in Ephraim, a tiny ice cream clown with cone hat

High on carbs, we visit the Anderson dockside warehouse up the street, a nondescript structure made famous by its colorful and copious graffiti. It's a picturesque spot and we are feeling great (See: an army marches on its stomach) so Mia poses for pics while Nora runs and dances around, wild and gay, all of us laughing our heads off. The day peaks here as my planned drive through Peninsula State Park turns out to be a little anticlimactic, despite pretty views of historic Horseshoe Island and a squat lighthouse that is closed for the night. The girls are deep in their phone games and videos, done for the day, so we hit Piggly Wiggly for breakfast supplies, scoring an epic Piggly Wiggly t-shirt souvenir for Dad and head home.

Anderson Dockside Warehouse graffiti


A gorgeous morning, sun on the bay. Cereal and fresh peaches for breakfast and we hit the road before nine to catch the ferry to Washington Island! The drive to northern tip of the peninsula is lovely, including a wiggly stretch that adorns postcards. Of course I can't capture it with my phone's limited lens while driving but that was only one bit of wonder at the beginning of a wonderful day. The ferry line is short, thank goodness, and the tight squeezing of the cars on board only adds to the adventure.

Road to Washington Island Ferry

Conversations with our fellow tourists shorten an already quick trip and in less than an hour we are back in the car and heading north across the island to Schoolhouse Beach. But first! a stop for floaties, flipflops and fudge at Mann's Mercantile general store where I leave my wallet and don't notice until lunchtime. But until then, we are thrilling to the glories of Schoolhouse Beach, a very special place and one of the highlights of our trip. Supposedly one of only five limestone pebble beaches in the world, Schoolhouse has a natural stretch of smooth stones instead of sand at water's edge but the magic does not end there. The beach sits within a protected circular inlet lined with lovely trees and you approach the water through a beautiful glade. Pebbles once littered the ground here but so many people have taken home keepsakes that the stones are now protected by law. The water was delicious on our skin (a rarity even in summer, I heard later) and we accepted its invitation, floating and bobbing on the waves and jumping off an orange float over and over again.

Schoolhouse beach

I had a hard time pulling the girls away from the water for chess and lunch from the good people at Bread and Water down the road, but I promised we could come back in the afternoon and the girls know I don't make those kind of promises to break them.

We did a quick touristy tour of the Stavkirk church (twenty years old, looks one thousand, the girls could not have been less reverential, thank goodness we were alone as we explored), scared up a cool snake in the woods, blew through a speedy visit to the lavender fields (one photo of Nora and we were OUTTA THERE! Momma so happy not to be on one of those crowded trams with the guide calling once more through the bullhorn for the last stragglers to PLEASE RETURN TO THE TRAM), climbed the tower at the highest point of the island for a green and blue view (we're exhausted), then finally called it quits with the rushing and the To Do list when we missed the ferry to Rock Island.

Stavkirke Norwegian church replica

Glamour-puss in the lavender fields

Fine. We won't go to the serviceless island for a hike.

 Deep breath. We're at the end of Old Camp Road, at the far northeast point of the island. The girls grabbed sodas and sat in the shade while I took a quick peek in a restored historic fisherman's cottage and a tiny boat museum (the museum was tiny, not the boats). I was thrilled to see one of the same Great Lake tugs that Randy and I had admired on our trip to the other side of Lake Michigan five summers ago docked at the pier. It's the afternoon of our last day and we try one more beach, although the girls are calling for a return to Schoolhouse. But this one has sand dunes! I plead so the girls gamely try it, changing back into damp suits in the car, trekking through the woods with our gear and splashing in the silty water.

A Great Lakes Fishing Tug

Back to Schoolhouse! The afternoon there is even more fun than the morning -- more people have arrived, more cairns have been built and we have the added adventures of ducking under the float, trying to imitate the strong teenagers who jump off the float holding rocks so they can sink all the way down and touch bottom, losing one of our floaties to the wind and thanking the rescuer, and swimming out to touch the white buoy.

The ferry is due to depart. We are exhausted. Goodbye Washington Island, we love you!

A few miles down the road from the ferry we find Gill's Rock and the lovely waterfront Shoreline restaurant, ahh. Wonderful dinner at sunset.

I get enough energy for one more hike after dinner, in the Elison Bay County Park. The girls are done done done so they stay in the car while I poke around on the wooded cliffs, not really sure if I'm following a path or just imagining one.

Elison Bay County Park

There's just enough time and energy left to get ice cream frozen custard at Not Licked Yet in Fish Creek. Mia falls in love with the ducks in the actual Fish Creek! next to the stand and cannot be pulled away from feeding them popcorn. Somehow I extract her, get the girls in the car and we drive home for our last night, singing Hamilton songs all the way.


I think I'm going to work tomorrow but thank god we have a few last diversions. We revisit the jumping coves at Cave Point County Park but they now look ominous, filled with choppy waves under cloudy skies. So we try the adjacent Whitefish Dunes State Park, running into some Wilmette friends on the way, and loving the waves and wind. A super fun last morning. We'll be back.