¨You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.¨ — Desmond Tutu
This is the third in a series of posts written after a summer spent chiefly at home during the time of COVID-19. Except for occasional grocery trips, visiting my mother, or a trip to the wide open beach, we have been home. I’m putting together two or five posts to document this Home Time, with a keen focus on the silver linings of the situation. This post is about Family and how we’ve been able to maintain and support family relationships throughout a summer of social distancing and sanitization concerns.
My mother and father met at North Adams State College when they were both pursuing careers in education. My father had already served in the US Navy and went to college on the GI bill. My mother had worked for a year for the telephone company after high school to save money to pay for college. They both became educators and married in 1953. They then created my seven siblings and me.
My father passed away in 2008, of pneumonia after a few years of living with Alzheimer’s disease. He left a legacy in our family, which has grown exponentially. The photo below includes most of the family as we gathered for my nephew’s wedding in June 2019. Missing are some of my nieces and nephews and their children.
Once the pandemic hit and we were all in quarantine, we didn’t leave our house except for groceries. My husband, Dick, and I took over my mother’s grocery shopping. My mom, Barbara, is a nonagenarian living independently in a senior living facility in a neighboring town. Prior to the pandemic, she had been accustomed to riding in the facility van to shop. When Massachusetts went into lockdown, her residence locked down immediately, pretty much isolating all residents in their rooms from March through mid-June. We were able to see her briefly and from a distance on St. Patrick’s Day, when we dropped off a traditional Irish dinner and some green carnations.
That was the last time we saw her on the same physical level until mid-June. My mother’s neighbor, Carol, who lives across the hall, would photograph my mother from her doorway when our packages were delivered so we could see my mom’s reactions. She also sent photos of my mother outside during walking time that was carefully structured by floor and exit to minimize the numbers of people outside at one time. Throughout this entire period of quarantine, Carol has been a kind and loving friend to my mother.
My mom’s residence management company has been appropriately vigilant throughout this pandemic period. They continually share testing results via text messages and communication regarding protocols and precautions on a regular basis. Locking down in mid-March signaled the end of the large dinner buffets, which were a primary source of social engagement for many residents. Dinners were delivered to each apartment for residents to consume in isolation. Social areas on each floor were closed, ending the small group socialization around games of pinochle, mahjong, whist, bridge and cribbage. It was pretty bleak, but necessary.
Although my family and I could talk to my mother on the phone, I missed seeing her face and worried about her being isolated. We started visiting her from the ground outside her apartment to her window on the third floor. It was challenging at first, shouting so voices carried three floors up to my mom in her open window:
For someone who works with iPads all the time, I’m embarrassed to say it took a full week before it occurred to me that we could talk over the phone and I could bring another device for video recording. I could then send the video to my siblings in other states. I also posted them in social media to help lift the spirits of my friends and extended family. My mother, the queen:
I was teaching remotely throughout this extended period, but my schedule was such that I wasn’t “live” with students until the lunch hour. Preparing for remote teaching takes at least double the time as teaching in person, so I appreciated the flexibility and the opportunity to self-manage my time. I have a habit of getting a lot of work done early in the morning, which dates back to when I was widowed at 35 and single parenting my three year old son. Typically, I’m up and working over coffee by 5:30 in the morning almost every day, which is when I have the most clarity. It works for me.
Early in the quarantine, my husband and I set up a routine where about every 7-10 days we would arise at 5:00 to get to the grocery store during senior hours at 6:00. We would don our masks and gloves and do our own shopping as well as my mother’s. Once at home we would wipe everything down with disinfecting wipes. We’d repack my mother’s items in fresh bags, label them, and drive the half hour to deliver them to a table at the front of the facility, where they would be sanitized again before being delivered to my mother. We’d have a quick visit and be home by 8:30 to start the work day.
A pattern developed where once we had dropped off the groceries outside the lobby, we would park the car and walk over to the spot under my mother’s window and give her a call. She’d come to the window and we’d talk. In lieu of a hug (I think) she always did a little dance or something to entertain us:
When I started mixing the video up with iMovie, which I would do on my phone on the way home, my mother’s inner “ham” emerged:
My family is spread out from all over New England and all the way to California. I would text these videos to my siblings in a group chat that would go on and on. I know group chats can be challenging, yet there was something wonderful in crossing the miles or isolation with this communication. A picture really does tell a thousand words. A video with sound tells a million.
Early in May, my mother received her federal stimulus check. Legally blind, the one thing she saw was the president’s large, black signature on the accompanying letter. She almost threw it away thinking it was propaganda. I posted the video below with the following caption: “My mom got her stimulus check yesterday & thought it was fake because all she saw was the president’s signature. She was going to “rip it up and throw it away”. My siblings & I intervened. Today’s video suggests she may be making plans to spend it”:
In this video, I suggested to my mother that she might blow a kiss. She obliged and then added a little “floss” dancing:
This video from early June gives you a sense of the distance and communication challenge between us:
Suddenly, during the second week of June, everything changed! We were allowed carefully scheduled (thanks Polly!) and timed in-person visits in a large tent in the courtyard area of the facility. Elbow hugs were as close as we got, yet we were thrilled and happy to be on the same floor and able to talk from just six feet away!
Isn’t this festively decorated gazebo so classic? What a wonderful space for a visit!
And from that day forward I have been able to see my mother almost weekly ever since.
Another blessing during this planned visit period, is that my siblings from other New England states would drive as many as three hours each way to visit for just half an hour with my mother. After their visit, they would come to our house, often bringing take out. Like most, my large family is very busy, especially over the summer when good weather prevails, and we often don’t see each other much except around the holidays. These visits with my out-of-state siblings were truly a gift and silver lining.
During the second week of July, the residence shifted into the next phase of quarantine. Residents could leave the facility with a family member or in their own cars to shop and go to doctor’s appointments. Coincidentally, my mother had an appointment scheduled that first week and I gladly transported her. We celebrated her first outing with an ice cream treat!
This loosening of protocol also enabled us to pick my mother up and bring her to our home to sit outside and visit with other family members while masked and socially distanced.
Below: On a trip to a routine lab visit, my mom wore her new baseball mask. A long time fan, she was pretty excited for the Red Sox season opener. However short-lived it proved to be, it was good to have baseball back. The quiet of stands without fans was a little weird, though.
As summer went on, we got pretty good at hosting family visits. We developed a preferred layout for the tables and chairs, grouping each “quaranteam” by table. We purchased individual plastic serving tongs and spoons and placed sanitizer and disinfecting wipes in prominent places. We wore masks for most of the time, taking them off only to eat or drink. Most of all, for every gathering, the weather fully cooperated.
How lucky are we to be able to host family gatherings for my mother and her adult children, grand children and great grand children? Talk about silver linings!
In the middle of August we were able to take my mother to lunch outside at a restaurant at a local golf course. It was pretty exciting for all of us, and only the second time we had dined at a restaurant all summer.
On an outing in mid-August, we took my mother to get an ice cream before delivering her groceries. The ice cream stand happens to be nearby to where my son works. My son hasn’t seen his grandmother all summer because he works with the public and has been concerned about possibly exposing her to Covid. He lives in another town so isn’t part of our household “quaranteam”. He also works many Saturdays so hasn’t been able to come to the family gatherings outside at our home. While my husband and I were standing outside the car with our ice cream, my son happened to drive by. Seeing us, he pulled over to say hello. Imagine his surprise to see his grandmother sitting in the back seat of the car. Imagine my mother’s delight in unexpectedly seeing her grandson. This is one of my favorite moments of the summer.
For our most recent visit with my mom over Labor Day weekend, we picked her up and brought her home for a few hours to enjoy lunch and read her Kindle in our screened in gazebo. It was a lovely visit and nice to be able to relax with her and enjoy her company. Also, it made us feel like we were making progress and moving forward and beyond the stressful quarantine. Even for just an afternoon.
The pandemic-forced Home Time this summer has led to some beautiful moments and memories. While this post is singularly focused on my mother and my family, we have made memories with my stepsons and their families, across the miles between Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Florida, thanks to messaging and FaceTime. We have eagerly tuned in virtually to proudly witness grandchildren receiving high school and college diplomas. If nothing else, the simplicity of life imposed by quarantine and lock down has allowed us to hone in on relationships and family. And from where I sit as I close this post, that’s a silver lining.