But there’s a lot the books won’t tell you — like how the year was marked by rain, and how the year revealed us. Will you remember the cabin, where the rain fell loudest? You had a small kitchen, a first bike and a plastic pig.
And — Nana Dorothy? Will you remember Daddy’s mommy, who caught the plague in her nursing home, and died a few days before Christmas? You have her brown eyes. When you smile and it spreads so quickly to light your entire face, I see her. Covid blew like a house afire down her hallways. We wonder if we should have brought Nana to live with us when the pandemic first hit — do you sense these regrets? — but we had no way to care for her dementia. That’s what we believed.
And what about the animals that brought you such joy? Geese, horses. A fox! We learned that the Virginians inherited a game from the Brits — a rider on a horse chases a dog who chases a fox. I was running with you in the field once, and we were nearly trampled by this parade. One hound after the next. That’s how the last year has felt, at times. “The Hunt” is cruel theater, chasing just to chase.
When the rebels stormed the Capitol, hot on the trail of a scent, one they invented, it was not dissimilar. But those are adult matters. What will you take most from this year, my darling girl?
Your parents were home all day, so that must be some benefit. We read books to you when not hunched over computers. You can do a puzzle now. Drink from a cup! The words that pour from you are astounding — proof of life and freshness and spring — the antidote to Dorothy’s absence. You are birthing language.
I tried to shield you from misfortune, from death and things you can’t understand. When sirens blared by with, I imagined, covid patients, I told you they were firemen and maybe a kitten was stuck in a tree. (Do firemen even do that?) I tried to steer you toward your natural being as a happy, curious child. I wasn’t always successful. Maybe that’s not the point of motherhood.
Speaking of mothers, my mother — Nana Julia, the one you saw every few days before the pandemic — started drinking Scotch! It wasn’t every night, she told me, but I took notice. Her childhood friends from Minnesota had introduced her to it at a chilly lakeside reunion; now, as winter encroached, she poured a glass, taking her back to her friends and softening the walls of the apartment she shared with PopPop.
You helped me bake muffins for them and laughed when I threw them onto their balcony. (Nana ducked.) We didn’t want to get too close. Who wants to be responsible for the death of their parents?
Nana and PopPop lived the last year marooned on the remote island of their apartment, ages 80 and 84. They wore blue medical gloves when they left their building, layering against doorknob germs. You think these gloves are costumes, like Halloween.
You will learn one day, I hope, that mothers have inner reserves. Mothers are athletes. They train constantly; they build up endurance. Nana Julia had already survived the death of a son 18 years earlier, the gaping desert of the soul afterward, a return to the living shores with a hard-won joy. When they were forced to be alone most of the year, she called up a spiritual force she already had.
You will ask me sometime what made Nana strong, in that pandemic year.In her case, it was the trees. It was her study of what nature could reveal about life’s mystery.
“American Beech,” she’d state, waving her blue-gloved hand toward people’s yards when we’d meet for masked walks. “Dogwood, Japanese Maple, Tulip Poplar,” her white KN95 mask muffling the words.
She zeroed in on a Magnolia earth-quaking the sidewalk. “The roots spread out from the trunk, under the street,” she said. I looked at the asphalt trying to imagine something rippling underfoot. I always thought of trees like flagpoles, vertical, not horizontal and beneath us, holding us up.
Roots: Her appreciation for her parents was so much stronger now, she told me, as was her gusty girlhood by Lake Superior.
Whenever I hear her fellow Minnesotan, Bob Dylan, sing, “Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Oh where have you been, my darling young one?” I think of Nana Julia. Losing a blue-eyed son taught Nana that life can deliver unfathomable pain and yet life still stands, with some grace, on the other side.
“These morning walks surrounded by the beauty of the natural world remind me that we are part of something vast,” Nana said.
You head for puddles when it rains. You jump in. It’s a good thing we’ve had record rain in Washington. You love the mud, the mess of it all.
Perhaps you will understand after this year, that sometimes “a hard rain’s a-gonna fall,” as Dylan sang.
When we said goodbye to Nana Dorothy on FaceTime, what did you see, my darling young one? The call came in so fast, we had just been having a tea party with your hedgehog. There was Doctor Gloria, calling from her cellphone in blue protective gear. There was Nana, in her bed. I tried to shield you from the phone, the PPE, our sadness. (“See phone!” you shouted. I did not let you see.)
What did you hear? We told Nana how much we loved her, how beautiful she was, how grateful we were for her life. Nana was silent, her brown eyes closed. But she squeezed Doctor Gloria’s blue-gloved hand. How many souls did the doctor help this way? How is she? How do we thank her?
I’m glad that someday I can tell you that you were there. This is our family history now. Yes, Nana died of covid-19. But also, you made her laugh like no other. When Nana laughed, we all laughed. We passed the laugh like a relay, and it started with you.
Lastly, I want to say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for losing my patience when you wouldn’t take a nap. I’m sorry I didn’t let you play with other toddlers. I’m sorry you won’t know Dorothy, the way she tapped her foot under the table to any song, and shouted, “Oh, man!” when the old-timey band kicked up at the nursing home.
Now your pink rain boots stand at the door, at the ready for the next rain.
You don’t know we’re in a pandemic. That awareness will come soon enough. When it does, I hope it also comes with knowing that being your mother, during this stormy year and what may come, is the greatest morning walk of my life.