Every year around Valentine’s Day, I text my brothers and ask them if we can figure out a time to get all our families together at my parents’ house in the summer. For the past six years, it’s been impossible. Kids’ camps, summer jobs, family vacations. We can’t seem make it work for the 12 of us.
My parents are now 82 and 85 and still in great shape. I realize this is not an indefinite condition. They have a house in Vermont that they moved to when we left home. It has a giant swimming pond, and acres to hike. The kids and dogs love it (my kid, not as much because he’s a city kid and doesn’t understand why you’d want grass and trees over vintage stores and B&H Dairy). But we all love each other.
I live in Manhattan and my brothers live in Maryland and Washington DC. Early on in the pandemic, I mentioned to my mother that it would be logistically difficult, and probably unsafe, for us to visit them this summer. As healthy as my parents are, we didn’t want to risk any of us exposing them to the virus. Her Jewish mother response: “I don’t care if you kill me.” She wanted us there. I told her that if we killed her it would ruin Thanksgiving.
As the months went on, New York became the global center of the pandemic, then got control of the virus, but then numbers spiked in Maryland and DC. I talked to my brothers about postponing. Before the pandemic my small apartment had been my private writing office (with my husband at work and my kid at school), but now it had become a content marketing firm and a rather noisy high school, too.
By July, five months into quarantine, I was fantasizing about a vacation to anywhere – Staten Island, the planted malls in the middle of Park Avenue. By then, even my son wanted to go to my parent’s house, because, “At least it’s not in here.”
My parents were anxious to see us and we were anxious to see each other. We decided we’d get our families tested, and once we got the results, we’d stay quarantined until we went. (My parents were boasting “new wifi”.) Tests were negative and all systems were go.
By Sunday afternoon we were all there, and I felt almost delirious, sitting and talking to people I adore that were not little squares on my laptop screen.
We took turns cooking, went for long walks, rode bikes and swam. My brother and sister-in-law taught me to backstroke, as an alternate to my usual grandma-doesn’t-want-to-get-her-face-wet stroke.
My parents live on the top of a hill and you can see miles of sky, a green valley and the Adirondacks in the distance. In the evenings we had drinks and watched the light change and the sunset in violets and purples and fiery reds. We laughed as you can only do with people who remember you once sneezed out Cheerios.
On our last night, we were all outside taking pictures. I remembered when our kids were small and in the summers we would converge here and go to Sam’s Dog House, a trailer where you ordered hot dogs or burgers and fries and sat at big picnic tables, in a field that was filled with hula hoops and soccer balls and Frisbees, and when it got dark we ate drippy ice creams and chased fireflies. We went every summer until they shut down. There are moments in time that you know you will look back on with a pang. The Sam’s Dog House days were like that. And now this was, too.
I grabbed my brothers and said, “We have to do this again! Whether there is a vaccine before next summer or not. We have to make this a priority!“ Though my tone was urgent and they agreed, I knew that once life started up again, and it would, not everyone would be able to make it. Sometimes things happen – your car skids on black ice for a moment, your doctor sees a shadow that turns out to be nothing, but it reminds you of how fleeting and precious this all is. And as bad as 2020 has been, it’s also a break from the ordinary that sometimes feels like a wake-up call.
Julie Klam is an author living in Manhattan