The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In this tough year as a parent, I found a story of hope

Original drawing by illustrator Pascal Lemaitre, of the main characters in the book "What the World Could Make: A Story of Hope." (Pascal Lemaitre)

I think back on the past year, the year when we couldn’t see our friends and said goodbye to others, when we passed trucks on the street, full of frozen bodies the morgues couldn’t hold. The year when we saw our children in front of screen-school all day, when we watched their spiraling depression and felt our own, when we saw teachers doing all they could to hold their students’ focus. The year when those of us who had day jobs worked at home while trying to take care of our kids.

As I think back on all that, I also can’t help but contemplate the light within it, and the Albert Camus quote, “In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

Because there was, during this terrible time, a new kind of beauty, a limitless beauty, born from the quiet.

As a recently divorced mother of three who split her time between New Jersey, where my ex-husband and I take turns at what we call “the nesting house,” and the Upper West Side of New York City, we changed our custody schedule to be as safe as we could. Instead of switching places each week, we agreed to switch places every two weeks.

The changes in the past year were not minuscule for anybody. They were tectonic shifts, for parents and kids. For me, the custody arrangement was dramatic — suddenly having a full two weeks with my teenagers and then just as suddenly a full two weeks in New York, by myself.

In those early days of the coronavirus pandemic, my kids and I explored new ways to be with our friends. It seemed such a novel idea to have a Zoom dance party, which I hosted on my first two-week stint. My 17-year-old loved it — this new way of connecting on the screen was exciting! Dancing, being free, all within our own homes! We didn’t know then that after our second dance party, we wouldn’t feel like having any more, and neither would anybody else. Because the pandemic was here to stay and Zoom dance parties were supposed to be a novelty.

There’s a selfie of me and my daughter, taken at midnight after that first party that we loved so much. We each have on a disposable mask, which was still a newish kind of thing in March 2020, and we are lying on the floor, hugging, feigning panic. Little did we know that panic was coming our way.

And that’s part of the invincible summer, the scary times mixed with the joy.

I am a children’s book author, and in my writing, I try to confront reality but make it empowering. To be okay with the feelings and to somehow find light through the darkness. How could I do that as a mother in real life?

My answer was writing another book, “What the World Could Make.” In it, Bunny and Rabbit admire the wonder of the seasons — and just as their friendship remains steadfast throughout, so does the earth keep offering gifts, which Bunny and Rabbit share with each other as a way to honor the time they’ve had together.

And like Bunny and Rabbit and their gifts, that selfie of my daughter and me is something that will be with me as I go on with my life, always a reminder of our holding each other as the world turned upside down.

A world where, at least in New York in March 2020, you were considered lucky to have a thermometer, a Lysol wipe or a face mask. A good friend who lives nearby called me, crying. Her husband was a bartender, still serving customers as the pandemic had picked up speed. She couldn’t get a thermometer anywhere and she was pretty sure he had covid-19. My building’s super came through for her — his daughter worked in a medical office and had a few brand-new ones on hand. My friendship with her now holds him, too — a forever symbol of what is possible if we are open and generous with each other.

This, I tell my kids about. This, I think, is the lightness through the darkness. We were all Bunny and Rabbit. We still are.

That openness and generosity became a new way of life for us. Together constantly for those two weeks at a time, my kids and I learned so much about each other. My light-filled bedroom in the nesting house became our living room. My king-size bed, our couch. All day long, the kids stopped by as I worked, to say hi to the dog, to say hi to me, our pandemic lives full of so much more daily detail than our non-pandemic lives.

We talked about things we’d never touched on before. The boundaries dissolved when our company was limited to ourselves. Lying around my room is a new way of being for us, and it’s a better way of being.

In the city, I took to grocery shopping at 1 a.m., since Fairway was open all night and it felt safer to have the store to myself. I’d bring groceries from New York to New Jersey when it was nesting house time. On one of those late nights, I came back with my bags, and I sat down in the lobby with the night doorman, exhausted. The building’s super, now a good friend, came out to walk his dog. He returned, and the three of us sat there well into the morning, telling stories of our childhoods. Because why not? It was the pandemic, and time had stopped. Like the new discoveries I was making with my children, what mattered was that we were humans together, made of the same stuff, afraid, worried, and wanting to connect.

Coming back to New Jersey on Sunday evenings, my car full of food, felt like Christmas. Unpacking the grocery bags became a ritual for me and my kids, with impulse items I couldn’t resist, together with late-night stories from across the Hudson. Here, we were Bunny and Rabbit. Gifts of groceries, gifts of stories.

Despite the coronavirus, the covid death counts, despite the scarcity of thermometers, toilet paper and Lysol, despite shopping at 1 a.m. and washing the food as if it were dishes, the peonies came, the ants helping them open — the magnolias, they came right on time too, and the cherry trees and dogwoods. The lilacs. The earth kept giving.

And summer came to an empty city, to a hauntingly still New Jersey. Bike trips and hiking trips were canceled, there were no sports, and there was an underlying darkness to our days.

I’m saving for my kids the dented pot lid I banged each night at 7 p.m. in New York City. I’m saving the messed-up spoon I banged it with, too. I want my children to mark this terrible time they’ve survived. I want them to have a physical symbol to help them understand more clearly one day the story of those heroes who risked their lives for everyone else.

And I want them to remember that through that summer, the waves kept rolling, the sunsets kept appearing, the sunrises kept coming. The earth kept right on giving.

Even as we heard that school wouldn’t reopen in the fall, except virtually. We had to keep going somehow, as parents with too much to do, as kids still stuck in front of a screen.

But every now and then, my 15-year-old son would have cookouts with a small group of friends; they’d gather outside, with masks, and each would bring something to grill. As the weather grew cooler, my son discovered a corduroy jacket that had once belonged to my father.

One morning I picked up the coat off the floor. Holding my son’s coat, I smelled the wood smoke, the same smell of the wood-burning stove that heated the home where I grew up. It was as if I were 14 again, crunched up by that stove, doing my homework. A gift.

And the leaves changed, the apples were ready, and the air felt crisp. The earth never stopped giving.

My 18-year-old and I received our second coronavirus vaccine shots recently. The nurses allowed us to sit together in a converted Sears store,two chairs side by side — my daughter’s mask was maroon, mine orange and blue; we’d come a long way from the night we lay on the floor hugging after our dance party.

And as we slowly emerge from this year of despair, I again think about the summer within it, how we have connected in quieter ways and noticed more about each other, how the joy of slowly welcoming back some of the things we missed so much makes us appreciate them more, and how astonishingly, throughout all of this, the earth never stopped giving.

Holly M. McGhee is the president and owner of Pippin Properties Inc., a literary agency in New York City, as well as the author of “Come With Me” and “Listen,” both illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre. She tweets @hollymmcghee.

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