TUESDAY, AUGUST 30, 2016
It was still very early in the morning and this birthday surprise was shaping up to be an all day, action packed nineyearold-palooza. Now the adults had to do our best to not spill the beans since we are the only ones that knew what the plan was for the day. I remember one year when my sister and brother-in-law pulled off another birthday surprise for my nephew when they were visiting. We were dropping all the guys off for a baseball game. Unfortunately for my nephew, he had no idea where we were taking him and we completely took advantage of his excitement and anxiety. As we stopped at a light near an old, dirty, abandoned mattress, he was told that that was his surprise, a nighttime romp on the mattress. He did not think it was funny. Thinking about it now, it does sounds pretty cruel and a little insensitive. He actually believed us and his bewildered and disappointed response was what kept the joke going for a few extra minutes.
Our first stop of the day was to New Hope, Pennsylvania to go tubing in the Delaware River. For a hot, second to last of August day, and a long, meandering distraction, I was all in. The kids had lots of questions during the drive. We made up a few fake trip possibilities along the way, but it was best to let their imagination go wild. We hadn’t even let them know that they were going to get in water. Their bathing suits and any other article of clothing that they may have needed had been secretly packed away, unbeknownst to them. New Hope is a lovely and quaint little town with lots to do. I had been there before to go tubing, for a Christmas Polar Express outing on the train with the kids, and just for food and shopping.
Like most places where you can go tubing, you park at the main hub, get your tube, life vest and other riparian accouterments and get bused to the entry point further up the river. The kids had never been there, but you can’t quite fool them anymore. You can lie, but they will know it because they can read now. There are scheduled ticketed times for tubing and we had only minutes to spare before we loaded up on the bus. By the time we boarded, we were at the end of the group. Imagine if you will, a Charlie Brown special where they go camping and pack a school bus with large inner tubes 3 times wider than the people carrying them, attempting to also sit down on either of the long retro fitted benches that runs the length of the bus. We all became human bumper cars squeezing in tiny, awkward spaces. Somewhere to my left were my niece and nephew. Across from me were their parents. Between my line of sight and my sister and brother-in-law’s faces were the tops of the inner tubes. Both my niece and nephew had these petrified looks on their faces, as if we were going to send them off into the wilderness with only their bathing suits on their backs, water shoes on their feet and a large inflatable that is too big for them to carry. What kind of people did they think we were? They should have at least known that we wouldn’t have driven that far for us all to be miserable. Meanwhile, I was trying to convey their concern to their parents with the best expressive face I could with a hushed tone over plastic.
Our drive wasn’t long. Unloading the bus proved to be just as, or more precarious as loading. Coming and going, you were using the steps blindly, which could have been miles apart. Nonetheless, at least the idea of falling up seemed less treacherous than falling down. It ended up being a team effort of an adult getting off the bus first, minus the inner tube, then being handed their inner tube and that of the person behind you, or some variation of that technique. It had been years, but the clearing to the river looked just as I remembered. The rickety, wooden steps I did not remember; yet another obstacle with a humongous inflatable and weary children who are still not quite sure what is happening. Only due to a lack of options, I had on flip-flops and was the only one without “water shoes.” Had I been prepared, I could have brought my fancy Adidas pair purchased for the trip to Hawaii, or the very least, brought old tennis shoes, even though I hate how wet shoes feel on my feet. After you get to the bottom of the steps, you are walking on the river’s edge. Not a lot of water, but rocky and slippery and still not the easiest to navigate with these inedible, alien sized donuts. It took some serious coercion of the children to trust us, and to get their nervous little bodies securely on their inner tubes before we set off. This securing of the body on the inner tube had to happen for the adults as well before we placed ourselves in the current of the deeper part of the river. For some of us, the job was easier. Unfortunately for me, trying to get on the inner tube with the flip-flops was not my most brilliant of ideas. Eventually, I took them off to get on, to prevent having to work so hard to keep them on. By this time, I was close to losing my group. Specific instructions were given to go straight to and stay to the left of the river since a lot of the riverfront was private property. Throwing in one more detail to navigate. Needless to say, I finally managed to arm paddle out to the rest of them. It is after all the Delaware River, the same place our first President George Washington has been recorded in history crossing, with one hand placed on one perched knee. Not exactly the Colorado River, known to have no mercy on those that enter its waters.
When I got out to the center, we tried to reconfigure, as if we were a skydiving team. You could bring or purchase ties to keep your group together to make this less complicated. Instead, we tried to grab parts of the handles and parts of the kids to stay in formation to keep everyone in tow. This took a lot of wrangling and puzzle playing. Luckily, my niece, the smallest of the group, had an inner tube with a covered bottom. Otherwise, I think we would have lost her first thing. Even with life jackets, and both kids being avid swimmers, I wouldn’t want to take a chance letting her float unattached. Within 15 minutes of our now lazy float down the river, my niece asked how much longer was this activity going to take, as if she was already over it. I laughed and gave her the bad news that she was less than 30 minutes into a 2-hour ride. In her expression, I know for certain I got a quick glimpse of her future teenage self in her sweetly, annoyed face. You can’t get any more relaxed than floating on a body of water, except when you are still worried about holding on to a child’s inner-tube.
A few more variations of skydive formations occurred throughout the remainder of the ride down the river, with almost anything that could have possibly been used, fashioned into tube ties. I don’t know how she did it, but my sister was able to captain the tethered group into every pop up rapid with ease, as if she was a guide that traversed this river daily. There is nothing she can’t do. The balance of the warming sun and cooling water was at the perfect ratio, and the splash of the rapids was even more refreshing. Once the bridge (exit landmark) was in view in the horizon, it was time to head to the right bank of the river. The water began to get shallow on the far edge of the river’s bank and some of the tubing enthusiasts began to get out of the comfort of their doughnut hole and walk the remaining distance. As far as I could see, there was still plenty of lazy action to take before I had to exit the tube. My niece on the other hand, as strong willed and determined as she is for someone of her peewee stature, negotiated an early exit with her father, while my sister, nephew and I remained until our backsides hit the bottom.
Wet bathing suits came off at the side of the car, “Point Break” style for some. I was feeling too stodgy to be that cavalier about changing outside and opted for using the dressing room. By that time, we were all feeling peckish and were going to head into town for lunch. There is a charming place that they like to eat when they go to New Hope and it was certainly the choice for the day. The benefit of it being a Tuesday was that we did not have to wait and we were seated immediately on the patio, overlooking the river. Food is consistently good here and I waffled briefly between a few things, but knew ultimately, I had to get the fish and chips. Cape Cod be damned (this is still for you Frances!). Everyone was pleased with his or her choices and a fellow patron even asked me about the fish and chips, after she was secretly eyeing it at a nearby table. Our bellies were full and it looked like the gorging on food after a 2-hour sun fest had our meters falling towards E. As we were enjoying ourselves between bites and rest, the most offbeat thing happened. A man went past on his jet ski with an unusual passenger. Sitting in front of him was man’s best friend. In a matter of a flash, man and beast whizzed by, slow enough to see his passenger, but fast enough to question if you were seeing things. Our puzzled minds were set at ease as the duo flew past again and we were able to confirm that the passenger was indeed of a four-legged variety.
Half of the day and surprises have now lapsed, leaving the entire third and fourth act for us players yet to perform. Hours still stood between us, and the latest plan of the day, so we took the spare time to walk off the weight of the food. We popped in and out of stores along the main street. I am pretty sure that the birthday boy was doing reconnaissance on a birthday gift. His parent’s were well aware of this and were planning on being accommodating. Although New Hope has a lot of clothing and art stores, there were a few, newly minted 9-year-old places of interest. As an intellectual soul, my nephew craves information and was angling for the bookstore to get his gift. His sister, as the younger of the two, was angling for whatever he was after. She never misses a beat and wants whatever he gets or at least something comparable, birthday or not. On the corner, before the bookstore, there was a soap shop that my sister and I were going to browse, with the assumption that we could wrangle my niece in there too. This would give her brother and father a chance to go to the bookstore sans a non-birthday gift recipient. We were not successful. Right there on the same corner was a battle of wills and a slight attempt at trickery, leaving my niece the victor. She went in the bookstore after the guys, with my sister following a close second. I was left to my own devices, smelling fragrant handmade bars of soap. Due to the breakup of the group, I made one last browse and bought soap, one lemongrass scent for myself and one for my sister that she only had a few brief moments to enjoy.
Eventually, I met up with the rest of the group in the bookstore. They were getting in line to make their purchases, a dinosaur book for the birthday boy and a princess hairstyle book for his sister. I shook my head at my niece’s tenacity. We finished our stroll back to the car and set out for the grand finale. Our next destination would be Philadelphia for the Phillies baseball game. Everyone was pretty quiet in the car as the heavy commuter traffic streaked past our windows. Getting closer to the stadium, the gig was finally up; you can’t hide a huge stadium and sea of fans walking in red and blue. The lot where we parked was still pretty empty. A few die-hards were still in the midst of tailgating, throwing balls back and forth and relaxing in lawn chairs. At the very back, mounted on horses were two Philadelphia police officers. As soon as my nephew and niece went through wardrobe change #3 for the day and had on all their official team gear, they joined their father to see the horses. In the meantime, my sister made a few wardrobe adjustments and regrouped and reconfigured all the personal items needed into her backpack.
First things first, it was time to boost this birthday party day up a notch and get crazy with the overindulgence at the ballpark. For the kids, the first round was going to be Rita’s ice. For the adults, it was going to beer, in big cups. Being an experienced mother, my sister had a strategic method and grabbed me to get the kid’s stuff first, to tame the savage beasts. This act would leave us free to roam while we purchased the beer and other snacks. When we made our beer purchase, we made quick friends with the woman working the concession stand. Since we were basically goofing off for the few moments we stole away together, we sampled the beer before we made a decision. In this time, we told our new friend about our current emotional circumstance, as if to get permission for our behavior. This woman could have been our mother and we sensed that we should explain ourselves. Her smile and kind words were pleasant affirmation that she understood. My sister and I were still high off our brief rendezvous and decided to hand off the beer to my brother-in law and sit in the row behind them since it was fairly empty for a mid week night game. We continued to talk and huddled up, while we sipped on our beer. Our sister moment lasted as long as it could and our twosome ended when we were joined by the kids, who could no longer strain their necks to see what we were up to.
The night’s sky slowly slid overhead and the clouds were showing off. They bounced around and made abstract shapes backed by a smattering of calming colors. During the game, we all had a few more indulgences to celebrate the moment. We all had a great time and I relived my youth racing the kids down the ramp. On the silent ride to their home, there was a lot on my mind. I knew that this was my last night here and tomorrow would be another day, one that would feel quite different and be without the shenanigans. I had to prepare myself for the fact that I would be going home for my grandmother’s viewing. Before I went to bed, I finally looked at the pictures on the bookcase. Looking back were the eyes of both of my grandmothers, as well as my brother-in law’s grandmother. All captured in one moment. All which have now left this earthly place. I did the best I could to sleep soundly, hoping for anything that closely resembled a peaceful rest.