B at Lincoln Center
The husband and I were recently reminiscing about the first day we, (nervously), dropped off our kids at morning preschool and daycare during the pandemic. It was September 2020 and followed six months at home for all of us; all day, every day, finishing my parental leave and then both of us working from home. At this point, one could hardly say the world was safe but it was safer. We knew the virus was airborne and we knew that masking would contain its spread. Our four-year-old's preschool, which also housed the daycare we had planned for our baby, fortunately did not pretend that remote schooling was going to be of benefit for this age group. So, with class sizes reduced, kids and teachers masked, filters installed, and windows ajar in every classroom, they reopened in July. We didn't feel ready to send them in until September.
That day in September, we separated from our children for basically the first time in 6 months; in the entire 9 months of the baby's life. Only once over the summer, grandparents babysat after a quarantine period while we went to see Jaws at a drive-in. After the drop-off, complete with two signed symptom checklists and temperature checks at the doors, the husband and I stopped at a local coffee shop and headed over to the duck pond near our home. With caffeine in hand, we sat at a picnic bench and just stared... not at each other, just into the distance. We didn't say a word. We just stared at that pond in silence for the full twenty minute window we had before each of us had to log in for work back at home.
For background, when this all started, we had a three-month-old. I was feeding said newborn, catching z's, and generally not reading the news, so to say the pandemic was a shock was an understatement. And I know it was a shock to most. We picked up our not-yet 4-year-old daughter from school on a Wednesday, and like so many others, thought we were bringing her back in two weeks.
Just like people all over the place that spring of 2020, we sat up at night refreshing the computer screen trying to get groceries delivered after our local store was wiped clean of milk and toilet paper. There was that first time we got an order of groceries delivered after several days of scraping the cabinets and freezer, when our daughter started hugging the grocery bags in excitement and we died inside because we had wanted to wipe everything down first. This thankfully turned out to be a fear of just the early pandemic days.
I'm happy but unsurprised to report that my mother's perpetually stocked pantry allowed my parents to avoid shopping for a full 20 days.
About a week into lockdown we all came down with sore throats. When I anxiously called the doctor's office because our preschooler had a fever, they told us not to come in- that it wasn't safe at this time. When I felt like I had strep throat, I talked on the phone to an NP at my doctor's office who said she would prescribe me antibiotics, but that I probably shouldn't take them because it was likely viral. The husband also had a sore throat. Nearly three weeks later, when we brought the kids in for their wellness appointments to an office now designated for such things, it turned out that the four-year-old had strep. Everyone but the baby, (thank goodness), was sitting around with undiagnosed strep. I was angry but I wasn't sure who I was even angry with.
On any given day, no one had their needs truly fully met. The parents needed time alone and with each other. The older daughter needed time alone with her parents in the throes of adjusting to a new sibling. She needed to get outside and she needed to play with her peers. I still tear up when I think about the early days when we walked past the neighborhood playground, cordoned off with caution tape, and she said; "Bye bye, playground! We'll see you another day..."
The youngest too, needed moments of quiet with her parents to bond. Instead, her older sister tried to squash her in my lap at every turn. In the absence of this bonding time, the baby seemed to know she was more likely to get those moments in the middle of the night while her sister was sleeping, so we were depleted of sleep too a few months in.
There were these articles circulating at the time about how parents were "touched out" during the pandemic. The authors pointed out that in normal times this term is typically used to describe nursing mothers. I was both a pandemic mom and a nursing mom...
Two months into the pandemic, a healthy person we knew died on a ventilator in the ICU. We logged into the family's Caring Bridge every day for the month and a half she was in the ICU to check on her fight with COVID. During that same time a friend was killed in a car accident. And because of the pandemic, we were not able to attend services or sit shiva with either grieving family. So for us, choosing three mornings of childcare in September meant accepting that we would not see the grandparents indoors during this time so as not to put them at risk.
I did a lot of grieving in general at that time and I sincerely think my husband found it alarming to see me that way. To see me nearly entirely extricated from any social ties or village, well, I'll quote what he said to a friend; “I mean, I’m a nice guy and all but Katrina is an extrovert and she really needs to see humans on a regular basis.” I always knew that my grandparents had lived through so much suffering. But I had never truly realized how much of that was this stultifying sameness of the everyday; of persistent waiting for their own generation's pandemics to end, for war to end, to hear news from loved ones...
Then there were the frustrations of everyday living with fickle small people and the husband and I were making a point of saying a lot of “pleases” and “thank you’s” to one another, often through clenched teeth.
With very little to look forward to on a daily basis, my twice daily tea became a ritual. And once the baby weaned, it became more like a six-times-a-day ritual. Tea has long been a comfort drink for me and I like the process of it always being slightly different in taste depending on variations in tea, milk, sugar, honey, lemon, whatever. I craved the caffeine and the comfort. And part of that comfort was drinking out of this one pottery mug which was handmade by a friend. I can’t say why I took to that one in particular suddenly; I just liked the sea green color she knows is a favorite and the feel of the pottery in my hands. And after a while, seeing it provided a conditioned response of calm in a time with so little respite. And every time I turned around, the husband had washed it for me. I certainly never asked him to do this, but what may have begun as his own compulsive tidiness morphed into an act of love. It was something concrete he could do and he said as much. If he saw it lying around for more than a few minutes empty, it was cleaned above all other things so it would be ready when I next needed it. He already knew that my least favorite chore is washing dishes, (it’s a long story, involving the fact that my mother doesn’t believe in dishwashers…). So even on days when tempers were high, I’d turn around to find my clean mug. He understood the massive importance of this personal ritual for me in a time without community rituals.
I recently told this story to my now six-year-old daughter and asked her who the love story was about; whether it was a love story about the mug or about Daddy, and she didn't hesitate to answer "Daddy". I hope that this is the beginning of our daughter knowing, as I have learned, that love doesn't always feel constant but rather, love is punctuated throughout our lives in many gestures and symbolic moments. That is what our rites and rituals are for, after all, whether it be the community rite of a wedding or memorial service, or a ritual that marks the passing of time within a day, like my tea.
We moved to a new home during the pandemic. It was a trial in this housing market with two kids. We had to move into my in-laws' home for four months, and we were fortunate to have that option. It was all worth it for the extra space, schools, and neighborhood while we were shedding the isolation of our old, but still beloved, house on the hill. Our new place is like a real-world Mayberry; the kids are outside running from house to house, playing all the long summer days until the ice cream truck comes.
Somewhere in the move, my mug got a large, insidious crack in it and would no longer hold liquid reliably. If you've read this blog before, you've likely noticed a thread that I come from a line of very sentimental people. So I tried to drink out of this mug past its expiration date. Then I decided that while sad that it was broken, it was also fitting as a sign that we had a new home and new life and were leaving behind so much of the trauma of quarantine. Eventually, it was re-purposed as a makeup brush holder. The husband gave me a new mug, handmade by a friend, and it continues to remind me that we have emerged out of seclusion to a different home and a different world. Even though we are not confined to home as much as we were, I still turn around to see that mug has been lovingly washed by one who knows me well enough to know what it means to me and to us.