Life had a calm empty-nest rhythm. Then, this spring, everything changed. We had not planned to shelter together with our grown children. The idea was that my 21-year daughter and her boyfriend would come here for two weeks until their college classes resumed. But classes never did resume; they morphed into virtual classes, and Anna and Ben morphed into semi-permanent residents.
My 23-year-old daughter, Julia, certainly did not plan to shelter together. She had moved to Chicago last summer to pursue her acting career, hundreds of miles from our Pennsylvania home. She had a job and a boyfriend and an agent. But when COVID-19 struck, her employer furloughed the staff. Julia was suddenly without income, with no car, in a shuttered city. So, Julia returned home as well.
Even Doug and I had not planned to be here. We were set to fly to Japan for a two-week vacation. We would travel to Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo. We would stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan, visit temples, and eat sushi. All this was to happen in mid-March, before the coronavirus epidemic set in. Instead we cancelled our dream vacation, bought extra toilet paper, and welcomed our daughters (plus Ben!) back home.
Once again, our house burst with lively chatter and music. Our dog, Frankie, was ecstatic at the sudden change of circumstances. He could not believe his good fortune, going from a family of two parents pushing toward 60 to a household pulsing with restless young adults. He was walked, fed, and petted so much that he declared exhaustion, huffing his way back to the couch, completely spent.
We have sheltered together for ten weeks, and honestly, it’s been. . . awesome. Forced to rely solely on each other for company, creativity flourished. We powered through seven puzzles, Ben quietly establishing himself as the resident jigsaw master. I started playing the piano again. Anna turned to drawing and art projects to pass the time. Julia astonished us with her new culinary skills, taking over meal planning and cooking excellent dinners. Anna and Ben baked a chocolate cake so fine it could have been sold in a bakery.
In some ways, we have spent more quality time than we ever had as a family. I am not knocking us as parents. Doug and I worked hard to provide family dinners, cool vacations, and adventures. But in high school, we raced from band practice to voice lesson, from S.A.T. class to play rehearsals. There were orthodontist and dermatologist appointments. College applications needed completion. Family time felt frenetic, with each of us shooting out of the house multiple times a day, like a bunch of pool balls, struck by a cue stick.
In quarantine, none of that happened. We spent all day together, every day. Doug worked in his home office, I worked in my room, Ben studied in Anna’s room, Anna studied in the living room, and Julia spun energetic circles all over the house. We were all together, all the time.
Sometimes it got boring. At dinner, we would gaze at each other, wondering whether anyone had anything new to say. There would be silence. Not much happens in a house where no one ever leaves. Finally, I might say, “There’s news about a new vaccine!”
“Yes, maybe in 6 months or so.”
“Oh. . . great.” Silence would fall again. “Please pass the bread.”
And, always, inevitably, “Julia, this dinner is awesome.”
We celebrated together, working valiantly to make holidays feel special. For Easter, Doug and I bought candy and socks, and hid them. Julia, Anna and Ben, who had previously declared they didn’t want anything for Easter, lit up with anticipation, racing around the house to find their hidden treats. For Mother’s Day, I asked for a family game night. We played Bananagrams and Charades, and I was overjoyed.
One night we declared a Lord of the Rings watch party, complete with a drinking game (drink when you see the ring!) and all of us dressed up in costume. I wore an old nightgown with a plastic crown and was declared an Elf Princess. Everyone else rolled up their pants, tied blankets around the shoulders and became hobbits. Even Frankie the dog got into the act, albeit reluctantly, sporting a tiny hat on his head and wearing a small cape with good humor.
Ben’s 21st birthday posed a problem. How do you make a 21st birthday fun for a guy trapped in his girlfriend’s parents’ house? Obviously, he couldn’t go bar hopping with friends. Instead, we set up a themed “bars” downstairs, and had Ben go “barhopping” from room to room. I ran a piano bar, Doug set up a man cave, and Julia held a fireside disco, complete with line dancing.
Tough times happened as well. Old tensions flared, with predictable fights about predictable things: I nag too much, Doug interrupts too much during movies, and my girls have entirely different standards for what constitutes a clean house. One night I presented a long list of all the household chores that needed to be done. My daughters gazed at me, impassive and unimpressed. I recited my list, resentment making my throat tight and hot.
As delighted as I was with our family time, my daughters struggled. Julia itched to return to her independent life in Chicago, sometimes chafing under my cheerful wish to connect. Anna grieved the end of her time at college, the last semester she would ever have there. My delight in our family time was tempered by the knowledge that neither Julia nor Anna (nor Ben!) would actually have chosen to spend ten weeks with us.
However, we have made the most of these days. And now… they are ending.
Last week, both girls declared their plans to go. Julia is returning to her life in Chicago. Anna and Ben are driving to Virginia, to stay with his parents for a while. I am trying not to cry. I know what they don’t know, what they can’t possibly grasp. We will never have a time like this again. Never.
There will never be a time that my two adult daughters will live in our house for ten weeks straight. Heck, it is difficult to snap a full family photograph for our Christmas card. For the last two years, we have had to plan months ahead to make sure we took a photo of all of us. If we can’t even get a family photo now, how likely is it that we will spend ten weeks as a family ever again? The answer is: not likely at all.
I dealt with Julia’s graduation. I mourned her departure to Chicago, and then I adjusted. I handled Anna’s going to college hundreds of miles away. I cried when she left, and then I adjusted. I went through my empty nest adaptation, and I got used to it. Now, I am losing both daughters again, in the space of one week, plus my bonus son, Ben.
I feel bereft.
The coronavirus has affected us all. I know that I am privileged, safe in my house, with food on the table, healthy and well. I understand that I really have no right to complain. But knowing that I am relatively lucky does not diminish the pain of this loss. I am so sad to say good-bye, yet again, to my daughters, full of vitality and humor. I am glad that they are going to resume their lives as they should, independent and feisty. But it grieves me to lose this family time, the last of its kind.
COVID-19 has been a deadly tragedy for thousands of people, and the economic fall-out will impact us for months, if not years. The virus remains, hovering deadly in the air. I would never wish this circumstance on anyone. I feel grateful, however, for the unexpected blessing of this time. I will never forget the gift of being together, just the four of us (plus Ben!) this spring. Our little family unit had an unforeseen ten-week reunion, and it was strange, and fun, and sweet. And now it is over.