It's hard to look back, now, to the first week in March. It's like I can't remember it, or it happened to someone else. I'm sure everyone else feels this way, of course. It was a long, long time ago.
Monday 3/9 was the first day of my Spring Break. I took Helen into daycare (“baby school”) on campus and worked in a cafe around the corner for about five hours, getting lots done on some ongoing work projects. It was peaceful, and I was happy. Robert was at work, and Marcus and Samantha (grades 6 and 2, middle school and elementary school respectively) were at school like normal. Before this, of course, we'd seen the public health advisors--no risk of community transmission in Boston, very low risk (just wash your hands), low risk (wash your hands longer, and more often). And we'd heard the public service pleas to eat in Chinatown, join the City Council for dim sum there, patronize Chinatown stores, and speak up against anti-Asian racism and microaggressions. We had noticed how empty the streets were at the Lunar New Year; we saw the kids whose parents were keeping them home from school. But that was all very distant, and nothing felt like it would impact us at all. The message changed subtly: moderate risk, but keep washing your hands, and don't touch your face. Public health messages started saying outright "it's all right to move away from someone on the subway if they're coughing--don't worry, it's not rude!" but we still hadn't heard the term "social distancing." Students' Spring Break trips--some of them--were cancelled, and a group who was going to go to Iowa to build homes with Habitat for Humanity was terribly disappointed...and also worried about how they would make up their community service hours. Otherwise, everyone left for Spring Break with no worries at all. Maybe other people were prepared for how quickly the messaging changed, but I wasn't.
Tuesday 3/10 started out the same way—Helen at daycare, me at the cafe working. Messages started coming in that other universities had cancelled classes, switched to remote learning, and were closing campuses, but there was no official word from my university. My department planned an informal Zoom meeting for 6:30 that evening, since many of my colleagues had never used Zoom at all, to talk about Zoom and “just in case” prepare for a switch to remote learning. I left the cafe early, and I was one of only three people there all day. I picked up Helen from her daycare, not realizing it was the last day for her there, too (she'll be in kindergarten in the fall--albeit maybe remotely). Marcus spent two years at that daycare, and Samantha two and a half. Helen got just over one and a half years there, but it was a wonderful place for the kids and for us, and I feel cheated out of a proper goodbye.
Wednesday and Thursday 3/11 and 3/12 I had always planned to be home with Helen—it was Spring Break, after all, and I was going to take a couple days away from campus. We were going to go, just the two of us, to the Children’s Museum or LegoLand Discovery Zone and library story hours, etc., and then Friday I’d be back working in the coffee shop and she’d be back at school. As it happened, Wednesday and Thursday I spent home, with Helen, reshuffling my syllabus as the “just in case” plans quickly became definite, and it was announced that yes, as of Monday, all of my classes would have to be taught online. I didn’t get any work done on those ongoing projects, not terribly surprisingly, and we barely leftthe house—library story hours were cancelled, but we still went to the library Wednesday and Thursday, because I was afraid it would close and wanted to have enough books on hand. Helen and I also ran to Central Square to the H-Mart on Thursday because I was worried about running out of seaweed, miso, and other essentials. Marcus had Boy Scouts Tuesday night like normal, but Samantha’s Wednesday afternoon karate class was cancelled. School was going normally, though, and the kids took the subway in with Robert. Marcus took the subway home by himself, like normal, and Samantha the schoolbus.
Friday 3/13 was the last day the big kids went to school. The school orchestra concert which was supposed to be in the evening was instead held at 8:00 in the morning, before school started, to an empty auditorium. “FANCY CONCERT DRESS—NO GUESTS ALLOWED,” read the email. Helen and I watched it in a LiveStream on Facebook—I’d never watched a Facebook LiveStream before for anything, but this was only going to be the first of many. That morning I panicked, feeling things starting to close around me, and hearing reports from friends that Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods had “empty” shelves as people stocked up for…what, exactly? It was unclear. But I took the subway downtown when Robert took the kids into school—Helen and I hung out in a (different) coffee shop for about 20 minutes, getting a drink and a pastry, until the Chinese supermarkets opened. In the cafe, there was one other person sitting at a table. In the supermarkets, things seemed to be ordinary—there were the usual old people there doing small amounts of daily shopping, and Helen and I got matcha powder, frozen fish balls, regular rice and sweet rice, and both udon and thin Chinese-style egg noodles. We went home, and she played in the playground a block away from our house for about 15 minutes on the way home. I sat on a bench. It was quiet, but then again, it was only 8:30 in the morning on a grey day. We went to the library later, and the big kids came home from school for what turned out to be their last day in second and sixth grades. Samantha said there was only one other kid on her schoolbus that day. I’m not superstitious, but I think I’ll always have negative associations with Friday the 13ths moving forward—the last day that we had anything vaguely resembling our old life.
Saturday 3/14 was supposed to be a full-morning dress rehearsal for Samantha’s church cantata, something the 75-kid choir had been practicing for since November. She had a (small) solo in it, and we’d all been listening to the music so much around the house that even Helen could sing Samantha’s solo and much of the choral parts as well. The cantata was going to be Sunday morning, two performances. Samantha’s orchestra was also supposed to be giving a concert on Saturday afternoon with Castle of our Skins, doing two new pieces commemorating Black history, at the South End Stringfest at the More Then Words bookstore, as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, and then reprising the performance at Symphony Hall the following Saturday, preceding the Boston Symphony Orchestra; because of limited space there, when collaborating with other ensembles, only eight kids from Samantha’s orchestra were selected to go, including her. She was the youngest, and she was proud.
The dress rehearsal was cancelled. The South End Stringfest was cancelled. The cantata was cancelled. The BSO concert was cancelled. Marcus’s weekly Dungeons and Dragons group of just five families cancelled for Saturday night. On Sunday the 15th, two Wellesley undergrads who had to leave campus in a rush and couldn't store all their items on campus came over and stored big cushions, a bike, a lamp, and some boxes in our boiler room. I'd never met them before, but they found me on Facebook in an alumnae group offering help to current students. They gave me a little cactus and we laughed and Samantha helped carry their stuff through the basement. They were the last people I spoke to in person, outside immediate family, for weeks. Schools, while technically open Monday the 16th, just for students to pick up work and books, were empty: Robert said it was pointless for our kids to go, and indeed almost no one went; schools officially closed as of Tuesday. Libraries closed the evening of Monday the 16th, “indefinitely”—scariest word ever. I made another two library trips on that Monday—one my normal, planned, one, midday, and one again close to 5:00 just after they made the closing announcment, when I brought Samantha’s library card too, for extra borrowing power, and almost literally grabbed kids' books off the shelves blindly.
Things started cancelling and closing longer term, in a cascade or domino effect: all museums, all concerts, Girl Scout camp for the summer, Free Friday activities in the summer, Tanglewood, all restaurants. Schools might open in September, or they might not—it’s not clear. Everyone will still need to be 6’ away from each other and wearing masks, though. It's hard to look ahead to the future. We're lucky. We're all healthy, and we have enough job security and savings for now. The food and other shortages were stressful, but we coped with them. We've been seeing my parents once a week--they usually come to us on Sundays for an afternoon and dinner and a game or movie--and the kids have continued with orchestra, piano, cello, Sunday School, D&D, preschool music class, and school classes over Zoom. It's been twelve weeks. March took years and years. April was over in a flash. May was another long month.
There won't be any outdoor movies, or sailing school, or woodworking/sewing classes, this summer, but meanwhile there are farmers' markets, open tennis courts and baseball fields at last, and delivery dinners once a week from fun restaurants (we’ve had Egyptian food, Korean, West Indian, Uyghur food, new-to-Boston Thai, ramen, Malaysian, Szechuan, and sushi, all so far); there might even eventually be libraries and playgrounds and friends coming over for dinner.
Helen is experiencing the joy (to her) of having Samantha around all day long. Though Helen misses her friends from school, and misses playgrounds, she clearly never imagined she could be so lucky as to have her big sister there so much. Samantha makes her things, such as this swing for baby "Evie," and lifts her up and does dances and shows with her and carries her everywhere she wants.
Together the girls made (pretty awful-tasting, but adorable) mini "donuts" from a tiny kit I grabbed at my last H-Mart run.
We do puzzles, water the plants in our garden, let the kids play outside, watch movies in the evenings (Lord of the Rings, Little Women, all the Star Wars, Frozen 2, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, and My Neighbor Totoro were all hits). As the youngest of three, Helen has to date watched quite an assortment of live-action movies. During Little Women, when Marmee was going south by train to take care of the father, Helen wanted to clarify what was happening. She said, “Is the dad in a war?” (Yes, I said). “And war is like a battle, like fighting?” (Yes.) “And now he’s ill, and ill means…calm?” (More like sick, I said.) “Oh. So he was…ill…from the battle?” (Yes.) “Because there was fighting there?” (Yes.) “And orcs?” That one stopped me short. What? No! No orcs! Ah right…thanks, Tolkien and Peter Jackson.
Samantha was one of the winners of the Cambridge Science Festival’s Curiosity Challenge this year for a visual depiction of a girl learning about gravity. They announced the winners online instead of at the festival (cancelled, of course). Marcus got into BLS and will be going there for school in September (shadow day cancelled), with most of his friends, both from school and from his D&D group; one boy will be going to BLA and one to the O’Bryant, but the rest will be with him.
Everyday, now, for now, we eat all our meals at home. Food is a big part of our lives: we've tried the Dalgona coffee (and spin-off matcha variants) and the pancake "cereal" that fascinated the internet. I've stress-baked my way through bags and bags of flour--including most of a 25-pound bag that a very kind neighbor got me and put on my porch one day, with a note, as though from a magical flour fairy.
We’ve shared so many treats with neighbors: warm cinnamon buns, Greek Easter bread, freshly made cider donuts, ham and cheese scones, matcha cake truffles and sugar cookie bars for Mother’s Day. Usually Samantha and Helen bring them to people’s doorsteps and we’ll send a text or an email; it’s a very small thing that has helped me keep a bit of the feel of human connections. For the Mother's Day packages, Samantha made a little checklist of households to help her keep track of which ones she'd delivered to and which ones were getting small packages vs. larger (depending on how many women they had in the house).
In addition to our regular variety of homemade popsicles and fudgsicles, I made homemade cookies and cream Klondike bars/ice cream pops once. Marcus was so intrigued he actually emerged from his lair an extra time that day and consented to pose with his sisters for a picture.
Most of the time, now, Robert works at his makeshift desk in the basement game room/office (Marcus showed it off here, below); I work in the dining room/kitchen; Samantha and Helen float around me, bouncing between outside, upstairs, and down here. We’ve played lots of board games (Clue and Settlers of Catan especially), listened to “The Birchbark House” on the free Audible, watched lots of the isolation choirs/orchestras/dance troupes, done Storytime Yoga, and on and on. Marcus has built a little bit of a cardboard model of the Duomo in Milan, and also played a lot of video games. Helen has even tried to learn ballet through YouTube videos. We've done the readalouds by Grace Lin, Michelle Obama, and all sorts of other authors, and the Mo Willems drawing lessons, lots of other YouTube drawing tutorials, and “Mer May,” a themed mermaid drawing task every day in May.
Samantha made a shadow puppet theatre (her art teacher, Ms. Wattles, had them watch some videos about the history of shadow puppets and work on making their own) and told a complicated story of our lives, as bunnies.
Below, some of Samantha's Mo Willems doodles:
Samantha makes toys for Helen constantly, such as these Model Magic puzzles, this play sink, and this adorable plump unicorn magnet.
Below, various of Samantha's sketches, and some practice with different watercolor techniques:
Below, chalk art with masking tape (Samantha left and center, Helen right):
Below, Samantha's Boston Parks and Recreation Department coloring contest entries:
Sean printed out some Star Wars "cubees" for Samantha and gave them to us in a care package near the beginning of the stay-at-home. She modifies most of them to have movable arms, using paper fasteners, but everyone adores her growing flock of Star Wars creatures, including "baby" Yoda and "grandpa" Yoda.
Samantha decided to spend more time sewing, since her Eliot School introduction to sewing class for the summer was cancelled. She started with hand-sewing, upcycling an old tee shirt of Robert's into this fabric-painted pillow, and then moved on to an old sewing machine that had been my grandmother's and that came home to her for some fun adventures.
She made a Star Wars babies pocketbook for Helen, and a pouch/belt for herself (complete with buttonhole).
The girls made puff paint with shaving cream and glue for a Girl Scout painting badge activity.
Here are some of the mermaids of May. Helen made the top left two--I drew the outline for one, and she colored and signed it (pretty fancy "e"s there in her name), and she drew all of the next one, a building mermaid. Samantha made all the others.
Another ambitious project: we taped and spray-painted (Samantha had the artistic vision, and also the hand with the tape; I just actually pushed the button on the spray paint) a new cooler for keeping our milk delivery in when it arrives. The girls were pretty pleased with Samantha's final product.
Helen creates, too--she directs Pop-Pop in Duplo building, draws (that's a mom holding a baby, and the mom has a picture of a baby tattooed on her arm, in case you were wondering), and assembled a bunch of Star Wars finger puppets. She's particularly fascinated by Boba Fett, especially since, now that we're watching "The Mandalorian," she gets to talk about "Boba Fett's friend" in that show.
We're so happy to have Grandma and Pop-Pop come over and visit with us once a week. The girls light up, and even Marcus gives a shyly pleased smile before disappearing back to his room.
We've read lots of books and Helen has taken lots of naps.
Robert and the girls helped one of our neighbors assemble a new desk chair on her front porch. Afterwards, the girls tested it out, and the neighbor gave Robert some coffee that had my name all over it.
As the weather has gotten warmer, people have been treating our block as a little bit of an oasis. Some of the grownups on the block exercise by walking or running up and down the block, with kettlebells or alternating sprints and slow stretches. Helen and Rohan often comment on them from opposite sides of the street, discussing how fast or slow they are. Helen and Jeremy did some wall-crawling, Helen and Samantha played T-ball in the middle of the street (and one night, after supper, Robert and Marcus and Desmond and Desmond's dad joined in and made it into an entire baseball game), and Helen and Desmond and Samantha play in and out of backyards and driveways.
One day there was an all-block water fight, with Desmond's dad up the block climbing out his second-floor window onto the roof of his covered porch, the better to take aim at others. Another source of excitement came when our next door neighbors stranded a drone in a very tall tree next to us, right over our sideyard and roof; their saga of getting that down took about two weeks of daily fun, with all sorts of rockets and sling shots enlisted to try to down the drone. They’d stand in the street launching tennis balls in the sling, while Marcus and his baseball glove stayed in our sideyard, fielding the dropped balls, until finally, at last, the drone came crashing down into our driveway in several parts.
We've raised and released butterflies, and, since we acquired a few large cardboard boxes, the kids made a slide down our driveway and an obstacle course around the sidewalk. The kiddie pool and a new sprinkler we got have been a hit on the hot days; sometimes I take my laptop out into the backyard and work there while Helen plays with sand and water.
We've worked a fair amount on the garden, both normal weeding and removing old leaves from last fall, but also knocking down the fence that was here, languishing, when we moved in. The fence needed repainting in full two years ago, and we did it; it needed touching up last year, and we did that; this year it needed some more paint, and we were sick of it. Sections of it also fell down flat in a nor'easter last year, and Robert had to work pretty hard to stabilize it. It was rotting, the gate was so warped no kids could open it on their own, and it put our entire yard into shade. In short, it had to go. Then we relocated some bushes and a cool "peace" post, built another raised bed and put in kale, eggplant, arugula, and other seedlings, got some mulch delivered and spread it out, got a picnic table from Wayfair and assembled it (mostly--it came missing a couple reinforcing parts, and it hasn't been easy getting them, what with UPS and FedEx shipping delays), and sowed some wildflower seeds and also, just for the heck of it, some corn seeds.
Demolishing the old fence:
Preparing the picnic area and raised beds:
The finished products, with a rain barrel (upcycled olive oil shipping container), decorative painting on the side of the raised bed, and some new flagstones placed near the fence to extend our path a little:
There has been a lot of sweet sister dress-up and playtime, of course.
Even beyond dressing up, Helen got to indulge her inner thirst for flair and experiment with some new hairstyles; when she went out with her hair in the two ponytails, Ro Ro saw her and called over "Whoa, Helen! That's fancy hair! You look really nice!"
Below, some happy things around the house--a cactus from those two Wellesley students, Lego flowers from Samantha (via her Sunday School teachers) for Mother's Day, and rainbow stair stickers:
Almost the day school was cancelled, I ordered Marcus--who had really outgrown his old bike last year--a new one, and Samantha inherited his. That was just as well, as bikes are in hot demand now, and lots of places are sold out until August or later. Robert assembled Marcus's and did some little repairs on Samantha's, and meanwhile Helen is getting better at her balance bike, too (though she prefers to scooter, given a choice).
Below, bike trip pictures--that last trip to the library on March 16th, a distanced-hello and drop-off of baked goodies and treats at Sarah's house the next weekend, and a couple trips to the lawn at Stony Brook T to play soccer as a family on the lawn:
On Thursdays after lunch, the girls have been going with Robert to the Stony Brook area of the Southwest Corridor to look for and solve riddles chalked there by YES, the group who runs her summer track program normally. It's good for them all to scoot or ride there, and Samantha loves solving the riddles.
Robert has also done any errands that we've needed to do by bike: refilling our gas tank for grilling, fetching wood for building another raised bed, bringing necessities to Grandma and Pop-pop's house, and ferrying home seedlings (Dudley Square greenhouses):
In March we celebrated Helen's birthday, wearing a crown and glasses that Samantha made, first with daycare friends over Zoom and then with a cake after dinner just us.
There were lots of special touches for the day, mostly unicorn and sparkly-themed birthday items: a spin-the-wheel game Samantha made up, where she would custom-make a clay figure (owl, unicorn, or artist's choice) in the color of your choosing after you spun the wheel, a rainbow-sprinkled birthday cake, a special penguin necklace Samantha made, a unicorn card Samantha made, a unicorn puzzle Sarah bought and dropped off at the porch, and a unicorn game Samantha made.
We reorganized our garage and made space for a new freezer, which Robert helped the delivery guy bring up from Green Street.
Girl Scouts continue--on our own we've done cookie donations and GSEMA virtual campfire singalongs on Zoom, and most Saturdays Samantha's troop has a half-hour meeting to chat and work on a coding or other fun badge.
Below, some of Samantha's schoolwork--stories and compositions she wrote, plus Google classroom views, with a picture of her class taken at the end of February in lieu of a class picture for this year.
We had an egg hunt with Desmond and our kids across three different yards; it was very low-key, but after having all expectations for regular Easter egg hunts dashed, the kids were thrilled with this mini one.
In addition to Easter cookies (there are also some unicorns in there for Helen) and Greek tsoureki, we had lots of Easter treats: Samantha made some chocolate bunnies, and we had hot cross buns, festive meringues, and an "empty tomb" cake.
Samantha practices both her instruments daily and composes for the piano regularly as well; inspired by a cute video she saw, she tried playing the cello with hand puppets (shark for "Baby Shark," duck for "Five Little Ducks Went Out One Day," etc.) once.
One day a week or so ago, Helen was playing in her kitchen found a small clay sculpture she had made once at an MFA art day and uses with her play food as a pretend lollipop. “When did I make this?” she asked me. “I’m not sure, honey,” I said. “Awhile ago.” “But WHEN?” she demanded. “It was at the MFA,” I said, “but I don’t remember which time.” “Oh,” she said. “So I make-ded it a long time ago, in the other time, not the virus time?” “Yes,” I said. “The time when we could leave our house and go places?” she said. “Yes,” I said. “Oh,” she said. “I we-wember that time.”
A few movies from the past two months, around the house:
Helen dancing while Samantha plays piano:
Samantha piano composition 1:
Samantha playing with animal puppets:
Girls dancing to La Bamba:
Easter greetings from girls:
Samantha playing the blues:
Birthday greetings to Roman:
Samantha piano composition “Switchbell”:
Samantha piano composition “March of the Notes”:
Helen saying most of Psalm 23:
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