Ditch and Run

I didn’t think dropping Crystel off at college would be hard. I’m really good at ditch and run.

Often Jody will say to the person that she’s talking to at a party, “Oh, I guess we are going now,” after I’ve tapped her shoulder on my way to the car. There’s no stop in me. I’m done now, my whole body is saying. When Jody wants to socialize at an event, we drive separately. Later, after a party, I’ve had people tell me, “We didn’t see you leave. You were just gone.”

I couldn’t tap into my own experience of being dropped off at college. I’m not even sure who drove me to my dorm in Menomonie, Wisconsin from Ellsworth. What I do recall is a few weeks later my mother telling me not to come home anymore. There wasn’t any room for me. I no longer lived there.

Crystel was able to move in early at the University of Minnesota because of her involvement with Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (MCAE). I helped her pack the van. A refrigerator, clothes, plants, hangers, and more plants. At the dorm it was my job to hang her clothes in a certain direction on the hanger. Jody made her bed. Two hours later, I had only finished one suitcase. She had that many shirts! I couldn’t believe that I would patiently undertake this miniscule tedious task. I mentioned that. We had just enough time to drive to Target for more hangers and a few items before joining MCAE for their parent and family kickoff event.

I accompanied Crystel into the large banquet hall. Jody was waiting in the car for my help to locate parking. I asked Crystel if she was okay for me to leave her. Above her mask I could see her stricken eyes. I hurried to the car to ask Jody to find parking herself. 

The banquet hall filled up. Dinner was served. Speeches started. I looked over at Crystel. Shook my head at each possibility that came to mind. There would be no ditch and run. She needed her moms.

I cried when we got home. I was already missing her. In the following days, I realized that for her, going to college is a step towards an independent life. I’ve texted and talked with her frequently. She’s getting settled. Meeting new friends and old. Involving herself in activities. Studying. My heart is with her. Hers with me. Where we intersect is home. There’s always room.

Confessions of a Pandemic Parent

Now that this COVID pandemic is largely over—or at least we hope—this may be a safe time to make a few confessions, one parent to another. 

When the lockdown began last spring, we adjusted to working and schooling at home for what we thought would be a few weeks, at max. I thought, “Great! What an opportunity to spend more time with my kid!” I imagined a sweet vision of idyllic harmony as my tween daughter and I bonded even more as we read books, painted watercolors, went for walks in the neighborhood. I could even get more involved in her education. Ahhhh. It was going to be bliss!

It didn’t exactly turn out that way. Here’s what really happened:

I was often afraid my daughter would develop scurvy from her largely unregulated diet of carbs, salty snacks, way too much sugar, and way too few fresh fruits and vegetables. My frequent reminders to eat more fruit are met with “I’m full.”

I was frequently tempted to Google “feral children” after seeing my daughter’s hair in a mat of frizz after no one had bothered to brush it for days. We learned that grooming is overrated.

Pajamas often doubled as day wear (and vice versa), especially when we never left the house. And socks were wholly unnecessary, even on those rare occasions when we did need to go somewhere and there was snow on the ground. We learned to get by with a minimum of fuss.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I thought it just might be fun to homeschool. I must have been nuts. After months of distance learning mainly via Zoom, the best I could do was ask, “Aren’t you supposed to be in class now?”

More often than not, 4:00 p.m. rolled around and I found myself asking my daughter, “Did you eat lunch today?” I feared the answer would be “no” because I know I certainly didn’t make her anything. If I was lucky, she may have concocted a smoothie at some point during the day.

It’s okay for a developing child to go to bed at 11:00 p.m., right? After all, there was not much taxing her brain and body during the day. Every night as I watched the time tick closer and closer to my own bedtime, I cried out, “Why are you still up!?!”

I found myself suddenly more amenable to things that would have been hard and fast “no’s” just six months earlier. Case in point: getting a cat, to which I am allergic, and yet it was sold as a method of providing “emotional support” during these trying times. And where does said cat sleep? On my bed, since the cat has started waking up her “true owner” at 5:00 a.m. by biting toes.

After years of putting off entry into more social media, I acquiesced to creating an Instagram account, which has been appropriated by the tween and is mainly a vehicle for posting pictures of the cat and recipes for smoothies.

We quickly careened down the slippery slope of unlimited screen time. I don’t know how we got here. It seems so far from the reasonable and even idealistic standards I used to have—actual daily screen time limits of an hour or so. But this pandemic parent lost her will to enforce more limits.

While my daughter has never been a good napper and has always seem to not need that much sleep, I on the other hand, found myself growing more and more tired. I perfected the afterwork nap. Pandemic life is exhausting!

I found new delight in doing errands. All. By. Myself. Drives to the bank and post office have never been more satisfying. And even the excuse of going into my empty workplace was a welcome change.

Someone should really start a Parents Union with universally agreed upon work expectations, hours, duties, etc. The words “I am done for the day!” have slipped out of my mouth more than once—mostly at the end of what has seemed like an endless day. (See late bedtimes, above.)

I even tried going old school in the fall after we had been indoors way too much. Me: “You know, some parents just send their kid outside and say, ‘Don’t come in for an hour’.” Daughter: “Mom, you are NOT that parent.” Touché, kid.

So faced with my shortcomings, I swallowed my pride and admitted that the year knocked me for a loop. Then I mustered up some gumption to do it one more day. And then another.

Slowly, we have started leaving the house for school, for work, even to socialize with other people—in real life. As life begins to look a little more normal, we may even begin to miss each other a little (in the case of the tween) or a lot (in the case of the weepy mother). And then I will wish for all that time at home, when we rarely said “goodbye.”

Inspector Clouseau of Spy Craft

“Did you tell your kids?” my niece asked.

I gasped, “No, no. The spy cam isn’t for inside the house. It’s for outside. And … we offered to have the app put on Juan and Crystel’s phone as well.” (They didn’t hesitate to say yes).

I’d been wanting to get outside cameras for a long time.

Once before, Jody and I briefly tried a spy cam/tracking device with Juan and Crystel. I’m not even sure they ever knew about it. Jody and I paid the price. There was a short period when we wanted to know where our car was going when we weren’t in it. I tucked the electronic device in the back pocket of the car seat. I never did figure out how to use the device correctly. I even bought two of them thinking the first device was faulty. Jody and I tracked the car to Chick-fil-A down the street. We couldn’t find the car anyplace. It was mind-boggling. We figured that Juan found the device and threw it out of the car into the grassy area. We drove to the high school where he said he was going and there was our car in the parking lot. Right where he said it would be.

The next and last time we were tempted to use the electronic tracking device was after a school administrator told us that all kids vape. Jody and I were like, “WHAT!” We didn’t think our kids vaped. Her certainty freaked us out enough that we jumped in the car and drove to the Richfield Ice Arena. Juan was walking into the facility when I hollered for him to come to our car. He was startled as heck to see us. “Are you vaping?’ I asked. He told us no and we believed him. Still do.

I figured if we weren’t using the tracking device, then we weren’t paying for it. I didn’t realize that we had a monthly subscription that continued renewing. This went on for more than a year before Jody tracked down the credit card charge that kept popping up. It was an expensive lesson for the parents.

I’m still trying to figure out what that lesson was exactly. So, I was bound to repeat it. Hence, my hesitation on going ahead with any purchase of outside cameras.

What helped me to decide was seeing our neighbor on a ladder putting his cameras up. I asked him if he would put spy cams up for us if we bought the same cameras. Easy enough. Now we have three outdoor cameras. The app is installed on all of our phones.

The cameras chirp every time they’re tripped. With an active household of two eighteen-year-olds, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, two parents, two dogs, two cats, Amazon, mail, and newspaper delivery, they are tripped a lot. We also have the occasional neighborhood cat come by during the early morning hours.

The first weekend after the cameras were up, Jody, Juan, and Crystel were on a ski trip out of town for five days. Every time I walked outside to walk the dogs or to run an errand, they would talk to me through the camera. I’d also hear them calling to our cats and dogs sitting on the stoop or backyard patio. It quickly became routine to wave and greet the camera as I was coming and going. I enjoyed this intimacy.

The spy cam was especially great at night, just before bedtime, when I would take the dogs out for the last time, and I’d hear Crystel’s sweet voice saying, “Night, Mama.”  

On one occasion during the first couple of weeks that we had the cameras, Jody and I overheard Juan’s girlfriend telling him,” You are obsessed with that camera.” He was at her house but was saying Hi to his cat at home through the spy cam and the camera was picking up their voices. Naturally, we replayed it for them at the first opportunity.

If only I could figure out how to talk to anyone through the spy cam.

January 6, 2021

The day after the invasion of our Capitol our almost seven-year-old granddaughter said to our daughter: “So those people will be arrested, right? And then they will go to jail? Because that is dangerous. They could make the police sick and then who would stop people from stealing and other bad things? And what if Congress gets scared so they can’t make rules anymore?”

Washington, D.C. has a magnetic pull. My tradition is to walk to the White House every visit and take pictures. Our daughter lived there when she clerked for the United States Tax Court which meant visiting her and exploring her favorite places. We did the Supreme Court tour one time with her providing insights. In 2019 I spent a day sitting in the House of Representatives and the Senate galleries as well as touring the Capitol with a member of Senator Amy Klobuchar’s staff. Meeting people in the offices of our representative and senator then watching them at work at the Capitol deepened my sense of what the democratic process means.

I think we waste trips to Washington, DC on grade school kids. Every citizen of voting age should be required at least once to visit the places where our government does it work. To go through security, read placards, sit in those galleries, hear the history of each branch. Let’s make it a compulsory requirement that anyone who votes must demonstrate that they have studied the processes that keep this nation a democracy. Not as a high school student, but at an age years after their formal education is complete. Call it a citizenship refresher.  

Bless my daughter, and every parent or person responsible for children and young people, as they provide information and assurances during these times. If it has not been difficult to give kids a sense of safety while walking the talk about mask wearing and social distancing, now there is this to explain. And to fix.

A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

GIFIjEQkRfGDZbThEEbPgw