Ralph Gardner Jr: Coming Home
I pride myself on not being taken by surprise – physically, emotionally, existentially. You may forfeit some of life’s magic in the process. But the tendency also offers benefits during a pandemic when advance preparation provides you the opportunity to get a jump on appliances like freezers and patio heaters before they sell out.
However, the one area where I’ve always found myself ambushed is in my feelings towards my children. In childhood you’re taught and expected to love your parents and if they’re any good you probably do. Romantic love is also well documented and celebrated in music, literature and just about any other cultural delivery system humanity has contrived.
But love of children is somewhat different, perhaps because we experience it for the first time in adulthood when our thoughts, ideas and disposition are already well formed. It’s shocking, in the most pleasant way, to encounter a new variety of love.
That’s what happened with our first child. Obviously, I expected to love her. And she was easy to love. She slept through the night from the start and was an excellent baby overall. We’d lug her to dinner parties in her carrier. As soon as she arrived she’d impress our hosts and fellow guests with her alertness and cheerfulness and then dose off, sleeping through the meal no matter how raucous.
But what took me by surprise was the joy I felt each morning visiting her crib and then taking her back to bed with us. It felt like Christmas morning every morning with Lucy as a growing, evolving gift.
We’ve probably experienced similar developmental leaps since those early months three decades ago – when I say developmental leaps I mean on the part of the parents not the children – the most recent one occurring only a few days ago.
It happened as we awaited our younger daughter Gracie’s return for the holidays. She’s spent the last nine months – the entirety of the pandemic – separated from us by the full distance of the United States. She was helping open a restaurant in the San Juan Islands off Washington State, 2,971 miles away.
We’re a close family. We get along. We enjoy each other’s company. We like to travel together. We’ve never been separated from either of our children for anything near that length of time. We’ve also been fortunate that after they graduated from college both our daughters returned to the New York metropolitan area to work. I can’t imagine the sadness and hardship of mothers and fathers separated from children by continents and oceans, not to mention political, financial and physical barriers for years on end.
But where the emotional novelty kicked in this time around was in anticipation of Gracie’s return, obviously magnified by the obstacles confronted trying to stay safe and healthy, for her sake and ours, as she flew home.
If their days as newborns presented one opportunity for delight and Gracie’s return now another, a third occurred when we used to pick them up at the airport on their return from college. The anticipation, the sighting as they came off the escalator or through the jetway, the hugs and follow-up hugs, collecting their bags, and the debrief on the return trip into the city were all part of the festivities.
The pandemic and fears of contracting the virus prevented us from returning to the city and going through the ritual of retrieving Gracie at Kennedy, LaGuardia or Newark. She took a car service and quarantined in the city for several days until her Covid test came back negative.
Debbie and I responded to Gracie’s imminent arrival in different ways. She cooked and cleaned and decorated. I did nothing different and displayed no more emotion than I do every day, which is to say not very much, though I would argue that my anticipation was no less intense.
Once Gracie’s test came back negative her sister Lucy – the good baby party guest; Gracie was more anarchistic in that regard – and brother-in-law Malcolm, both of whom had also just tested negative, picked her up and drove her upstate. Debbie would have preferred they provided more regular updates on their progress – say every mile marker – whereas I was content in the knowledge that they were on their way and would arrive eventually.
Debbie emitted something resembling a scream as she saw the car roll down the driveway and, knowing that everyone was very recently tested, we allowed ourselves the greatest indulgence of 2020 – a short hug.
Gracie will be here little more than a month. Cooking up a storm because that’s what she does. Then she returns to the West Coast. We hope to reciprocate her visit, fully vaccinated, sometime this spring or early summer, perhaps as the culmination of a cross-country road trip. It’s a journey we’d planned a year ago but that got delayed by circumstances beyond our control.
It’s a pity she can’t stay longer. But the reward for our next separation will be the anticipation of the reunion to come.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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