Saturday, February 07, 2009

Family Day, Year of the Ox

Three years ago, we pulled up in a bus to the Chongqing Children's Home and a few minutes later, were handed a huge, pink-clad baby with bruises on her forehead and a death-grip on a piece of hard candy. That was how we became parents. Every part of that day was so weird, and I was overcome by emotion I couldn't even understand yet. The only reason I got through it without dissolving into a salty puddle was David by my side, and the company of our dear friends Mary and Paul, who also met their daughter in that historic moment. Now, the six of us are related, an effect that wouldn't be obvious until after it happened.

That moment inspired us to create Family Day, which we now celebrate every February 6th in dedicated fashion; everyone takes the day off and we plan a trip that removes us from our usual lives completely. The first year, when the girls had recently turned two, we thought of the Amtrak train to San Juan Capistrano, a 45-minute journey from here but a world away. SJC is home to the famous returning swallows, and the Mission San Juan Capistrano, a gorgeous crumbling ruin. It's also a charming small town with a downtown of only a few blocks, and when you step out of the train, you're in it.

The first time we rode, it felt much longer--the kids made a lot of noise and a lot of mess, and didn't want to stay in their seats. When we arrived, a nice lady asked if we were on our way to Zoomars. What's that, we asked. Just steps from the train station is the world's most magical petting zoo, with a straw-covered petting corral filled with hundreds of bunnies and guinea pigs running free, each possessing a craving for carrots, and a high tolerance for cuddling.

This year, I could really feel the change in our lives, right in my body, in fact. Gazing out the window of the train, which hurtles inches from the beaches of south Orange County, I had a strong sense memory of the previous two years, how haggard I'd been already at 10:00 a.m. This year, I felt fine, and sipped my latte (courtesy of Mary and Paul) while the girls snacked on bagels and amused themselves without terrorizing the entire car. I was even sure I saw a pod of dolphins, though Paul said it was kelp. "No, actually I meant dolphins," he said smiling. "Rainbow dolphins." It was our first year without the diaper bag, without strollers, without an arsenal of amusements to ward off boredom and tantrums. While I enjoyed all this, I felt a slight wistfulness for the girls' babyhood--they are kids now, practically out of preschool.

This was also the first year that the famous Southern California weather was not on our side--the morning was cold and gray and lashings of rain fell intermittently. We got really lucky and never got caught in a downpour--I guess the Family Day elves were looking out for us. However, our beloved Zoomars, while open, was coated in a sticky mixture of mud puddles and animal poop, so we all got a bit filthy. Pam, the cheery red-headed manager, welcomed us in at the "rainy-day rate" and obliged our requests for many, many baskets of bunny salad, but some of the other attractions--the pony rides, the train--were shut down for the day. On the up side, we were the only people there, and the girls literally had their pick of the litter amongst the sociable denizens of Fluffy Corral.

Pam introduced us to Harry Talks-a-Lot, a huge black guinea pig with hair as long and curly as David's, and he did indeed have a lot to say. Then she plunked him in my lap, where he snuggled happily for half an hour while I petted him. It was incredibly soothing to rub behind his soft little ears while other animals hoisted themselves on my knees, and gently nibbled on my heels. The girls were industrious and democratic, spreading the lettuce-love around, and holding the pigs very gently in their little laps.

Probably the most obvious way that Family Day is changing was lunch...the past two years, we've eaten Mexican and stuffed a bite or two of burrito in our mouths as we wrangled high chairs, cut up quesadillas and soothed outbursts. Both of those years, we have trudged up the road from Zoomars to gaze longingly through the vine-covered arbor of the outdoor Ramos House Cafe, a tiny restaurant at the chef's home. The place (and the menu) always struck me as the epitome of culinary magic, yet their "we don't have high chairs" policy bespoke a need for restraint when accompanied by two toddler terrors. So we walked on by.

This year, we stood in our usual position, and asked the hostess about 4-year-olds, and she said, "Well, we don't have high chairs, but kids eat here all the time--no problem." No problem? I could hardly believe it was finally going to happen. Sure enough, a large, umbrella'd table awaited us at the edge of the garden (and who cared that the rain came down and dampened our backs a bit? and that the My Little Pet Shop pieces escaped through the slats in the table?) and within seconds a cheery waitress brought us Grapefruit Fizzes (another Family Day tradition--booze in the afternoon!) served glass jelly jars, brimming with fresh blueberries and a generous dollop of fruit sorbet. We toasted each other...and I ended up with a lapful of kiddie cup. Hey, it was good to be reminded how our lives have changed.

For anyone who's been missing my foodie blogs from NaBloPoMo in July, here's the roundup: we started with the sweet potato fries, which were crispy and fluffy and perfectly matched by the zesty bleu cheese dip. Then I had a caramelized fruit salad (that I'd literally seen in my dreams for two years) which was not as caramelized as I'd imagined, but luxuriously robed in sweet, yogurty sauce and served adorably in half a scooped-out orange.

My main dish was accurately described--"Spicy Tomato Soup with a Mini Grilled Cheese"--too accurately, in fact, since I could only manage two sips of the zesty soup without feeling like I'd regret it all day. The mini grilled cheese was extremely mini--about the size of a baguette slice--but may have been toasted by angels and expressed to my plate from heaven, so delectable did I find it. David's beef stew was delish, Paul's scramble was fine, and Mary's mac n' cheese with fresh veggies, herbs and lemon gremolata (and no, I don't know what that is, but doesn't it sound lovely?) stole the show.

Quite buzzed now, we rounded out the meal with their signature Apple Beignets, but that might have been the biggest disappointment for me. The little donuts certainly looked wonderful, crisp and brown, but they had the consistency of eggy rocks and disturbing translucent chunks that crunched in the teeth. "Are these onions?" I asked my companions dopily, and they reminded me that they were apple. Which is weird, because they didn't taste like apple, or like anything, really.

After lunch, we decided to shorten the SJC part of our day, since the weather was not cooperating for frolicking on the village green, which is how we spent our afternoon last year. With an hour to kill before the train, we wandered into town to shop for souvenirs, and the girls scored tiny boxes of polished stones--the kind of thing that would have sent me into spirals of ecstasy at their age. I'd like to say that an angel gets her wings on Family Day, but apparently it's more like an angel loses her head--a statuette perched unfortunately near flailing small hands met an untimely end. We offered to pay, and the gal behind the counter told us that they only request payment from people who don't offer. I love that!

Back on the train, we were comfortably ensconced, Jarrah and Joy sitting together with their organic juice boxes and pop tarts, when the ticket man came through and asked "Are you a family?" "Yes," we answered--it's nice to be recognized. But then what followed was entirely unexpected--he marched over to the people busily typing into their various devices in the table section, and ousted them! "I have a family of six back here, and they have priority." We stood there guiltily as the surprised folk gathered their belongings and were directed out of Eden, when suddenly...there was hugging!

Turns out one of the displaced was Paul's cousin! An awkward moment became a big family reunion instead. For the first time, I sat next to the ocean on the ride home, and stared at the twinkling water, mesmerized, while David fell asleep. The girls extracted the one-inch square of foam from their rock kits and stuck them to things, the rocks entirely forgotten.

Back in Solana Beach, we agreed to continue the festivities at Coraline in 3-D, playing nearby. David was especially interested in this movie because he's obsessed with all things 3-D right now (go ahead--ask him.) And we did go, and the girls were very well-behaved, but Readers, I can't think of a less appropriate movie for Family Day if someone had produced one just for us in Bizarro World. Our hero Coraline, you see (she of the stop-motion animation and blue hair) has just moved to a spooky new house, where she is roundly ignored by her parents and forced to eat Swiss Chard for dinner.

Naturally, she is thrilled to discover a secret passage that leads to an alternative reality where her parents are attentive and funny, she gets chocolate cake for dinner, and all the kooky neighbors do shows for her. There's only one little problem: the Other Parents and their cohorts have buttons for eyes, and the Other Mother is actually a murderous witch who wants to sew buttons over Coraline's eyes, enabling her to suck out her soul and eat it (a fate confirmed by the button-eyed "ghost children" who visit Coraline in her dreams.)

Ahem. So Coraline goes to live in another world with a different set of parents who pretend to love her so they her. That's niiiiiice. And of course Jarrah could care less about any of those implications and was only interested in the "ghost eyes" Coraline must collect (rather confusing, that) and restore to the children who've had their souls sucked out. We went round and round on "ghost eyes", and in all fairness, she might have stopped asking about them if I'd had some genuinely convincing answers.

I actually started laughing when Other Mother turns into a monstrous thing with claw hands who keeps bellowing "Soon you'll see things my way!" and Coraline escapes screaming back to her original world, only to have to overcome her fear and rescue her "real" parents who've been trapped in a snow globe. Yup, it just kept getting more and more heart-warming for us all.

Again, Jarrah was completely untraumatized by any of that. Ghosts are her focus, and since that wasn't getting cleared up, she didn't have time for anything non-ghost. Which is a relief, but man, I do think it's interesting how none of the reviews I've read have made any mention of these disturbing parallels.

After the movie, we went next door to Sammy's, which was probably a mistake because of the hour, but we were hungry. Jarrah and Joy both lay down in the booth and pretended to sleep, but there was a lot of crying from our J before the check was settled. Then, we were all buckled into the car when I realized that Beast was missing.

Beast is an odd stuffed animal hybrid--a Snoopy dressed as a snowman with a carrot nose, etc.--Jarrah received from Paul's mother on Christmas. She named him Beast without hesitation, which is just one of the many reasons I love that kid. Anyway, she had been in charge of Beast all afternoon, which meant he was now lost. David sprinted back up to the theater and the restaurant, while I soothingly explained that Beast might not be coming back, but that some other little girl or boy would take good care of him. "And how will they find me to bring him back?" she wailed, which is really rather smart. "They might not, honey, but at least you'll know he's happy and well cared-for." That brought a louder round of wailing, but just then, David miraculously appeared with Beast in hand, and all was well.

After a 30-minute drive and discussion about how you suck out someone's "human essence" so you can eat it, we were home and snug. Three years!


Marlene said...

Sounds like an amazing anniversary, Sam. What a wonderful family tradition and what a lovely metaphor that you made it such a fabulous day, even when there were what might be perceived as less than perfect conditions.

Coraline sounds gruesome. The little kid's "No Country For Old Men." Thanks for the review. Another movies I'll be glad to miss out on, no matter how brilliant. Someday, perhaps, I'll have calm mealtime on the town. Since Jacob's 7, I think I should stop waiting for "bigger kidness" to bring me ease. ;)

Love to you and your family!

Anonymous said...

Happy anniversary to the six of you! Several of those photos are destined for the "kept them forever to remind me of my wonderful friendship" category. The umbrellas! The little girl hugs! They are just precious.

I'm so glad you all had such a great day. You deserve it.
Miss J

Mary said...

Happy Family Day! Or as Joy says, "Happy Fambly Day!"

We had a great time with you three.

I can't wait until next year!

Great post and photos!



Jenn said...

Happy Happy Happy 3 Family Years to you all! I love reading about your tradition trip every year. Your lives are amazing. : )

LunaMoonbeam said...

What a fabulous tradition...and HAPPY FAMILY DAY!!! (I'm glad y'all found Beast. I lost a toy like that when I was young, and it botheted me for years! *Mostly because I knew exactly where I'd left it - on my seat on the ferry - but the boat was already gone!)

Unknown said...

Happy Family Day!

Glad to see that J.Dust hasn't let her injury prevent her giving 110% in the hugs dept.

BTW, those guinea pigs look like good eatin' in Peru!

Amanda said...

Wow sounds like a perfect day, and such a special day! Those two little ones looked absolutely adorable together. Love the pictures with the umbrella!
Happy Family day to all of you!

I am glad the beast made it home too!

Heather - The Wanna-be Super Mom said...

Happy 3 years FAMILY...all 6 of you!!! Sorry about the loss of Beast...that really does stink!

Laural Out Loud said...

I don't think any other name would be as perfect as Beast. She's going to be an excellent namer.

Glad you had such a great day! How fun to do the same thing every year- the girls are going to have such great memories of their annual Family Day!

Amanda said...

I highly, highly doubt that I am anywhere near 1/2 your age. =)

I was 31 in Jan.

I was 13 in 1991, and in 7th grade!

Now unless you are 62..... hehe!!

Teresa said...

Happy Fambly Day!! Yay, that Beast is still part of that fambly, too.


The Wades said...

I am frantically cleaning for my soon to be appearing out of town guests. I have no time to comment on all the great "stuff" in this post. Just know that I have lots to say! Lots! I'll get back to you soonish. :)

Oh, and cannot wait to read your guest post!! Fun times.