In the second installment of our new series, ‘You Never Call! You Never Skype!’, a grandmother reflects on her experiences of grandparenting during the pandemic.
Thursday 12th March
Yesterday was an ordinary Wednesday. I went as usual to my yoga class, did some shopping chores, collected our two oldest grandchildren from the tube station after school, pored over a crossword with them at the kitchen table and cooked dinner for four of us while the children gave instructions on how they wanted their food served. Two fond grandparents, we sat cheek by jowl with Josh and Ilana as we have done every term-time Wednesday for ten years, arguing and bantering about matters of the moment. When they left, I gave them the permitted teenager-appropriate hugs and the usual ‘See you next Wednesday’.
That was yesterday. Today we flipped through to the Looking Glass world.
This evening Boris Johnson told the country that the Covid-19 virus was now gathering strength and that ‘some of us are going to lose loved ones’. Most of the dead, he told us, would be people aged 70 or over, people of my age in fact. The elderly and the vulnerable, he said, were to isolate themselves, to keep away from anybody who might possibly be infected with the virus. ‘Such as my grandchildren’ I added to myself.
The part of me that has not yet recognised myself as ‘elderly’, was incredulous before the television screen. Suddenly it was time to put my affairs in order? Suddenly I needed to make sure that my file of useful information for the children was up to date? Yes indeed, that was exactly the position. Recognise the challenges of the new concepts of ‘self isolation’ and ‘social distance’. Prepare for the worst. It has begun.
Thursday 2nd April
As grandparents we are not doing well. All our energy is being poured into working out how to get groceries and how to Zoom in punctually to classes, meetings, lectures and Shabbat services. We also need to keep time for the mandatory one hour daily ‘exercise’ and to make check-up phone calls to friends and neighbours who are alone, sick or despairing. Distracted, we have not yet cracked the conundrum of how to send loving vibes to the grandchildren we can no longer see in the flesh.
We have tried playing battleships, rummy and monopoly with the two youngest by Zoom but it feels odd. It seems that they are patiently caring for us, looking after the old people who eons ago, when the world was predictable, looked after them. We still see Josh and Ilana on Wednesday afternoons, but now it is by Whatsapp video call and I send ahead a photo of the day’s crossword instead of making them their evening meal. Sometimes it is almost like the old days as we challenge each other to dredge up barely-known words. At other times it seems that they too are just doing their respectful bit for the old folks on death row.
Sunday 12th April
Everyone is talking (virtually) about the beautiful images emerging from this Covid springtime: the clarity and depth of the sky unsullied by pollution; the early morning crows strutting on the empty tarmac where once traffic raced past; the carpets of daffodils in the woods giving way to carpets of bluebells. But for me there are other images that crowd out these joys of nature and simply bring tears.
There is the bitter-sweet image of our 2020 Pesach seder table covered with my grandmother’s embroidered cloth and set for just two people instead of the usual crowd of family and friends sitting cramped around the table on an assortment of odd chairs. There is the smiling face of my vigorous friend Barry last seen as lockdown began. Soon after that he succumbed rapidly to the virus and died without his family to comfort him on Erev Pesach. He was 62.
And then there is the image of my youngest grandson, Danny aged 9, waving to me from the street as I stand at my open front door longing to sweep him into my arms. I see that he has grown a few inches and is wearing a summer T shirt; the last time I was physically close to him he was bundled up in his winter coat. The precious time since then, when we should have been chatting and joking with him and his brother, is lost for ever.
Sunday 17th May
Vapour trails appeared this morning as the first planes reclaimed the skies. The tight lock-down regulations have been eased very slightly. Children and teachers are standing by for a possible recall to school before the summer term ends and some shops and businesses have been permitted to re-open. Most exciting of all, we are now allowed to meet one other person from outside our own household provided we retain our social distance at 2 metres and stay in the open air.
So this morning, we two isolated old people, newly labelled by this crisis as vulnerable and frail, receive visits in our garden from, one by one, our daughter, our son, and two of our grandsons. How warming to talk face to face with loved ones so much missed for so long. Danny has stopped off on his way to buy us the kind of sweets he knows we love best. Josh brings with him the product of the complex A-Level art project that he has fashioned from scratch during lockdown, using the most primitive of instruments to weld together wood and animal hides and to beat copper into shape. I am so glad that he still wants to show his best work efforts to his grandparents.
It should have been a morning of joyous celebration but it did not feel quite right. I could not offer the usual hearty grandma meals of favourite foods for fear that we might transmit the virus to each other. Nor could we hug and kiss after all these weeks. I could not even let them into our house which has seen no visitors of any kind for so long and feels strangely cold without friends and family popping in.
Of course I am thankful for this end to complete lockdown but we cannot celebrate yet. May be the statistically-fortunate under-70s will gradually find their way back to the world pre-Covid, but we oldies are in for a long wait, until there is either a vaccine or we learn to live with the risk of an encounter with the Evil Virus.
I have just obtained some washable face-covers in jolly cotton fabrics for the day when we will venture out from home. What will it be? Perhaps a walk to the local store to choose my own groceries after months relying on others? Perhaps a stroll to a hairdressing salon as in my nightly dreams? Or a ride in the car (if we can get it started) to visit a friend? Any of those would be welcome but all I really want is what I cannot have – to see my children and grandchildren sitting around my dining-room table waiting for me to bring in their Friday night chicken soup.
*These are extracts from diary entries made on the dates shown. Only names and some minor details have been changed to preserve anonymity.