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‘I’m really just trying to get to know my granddaughter again’

For vaccinated grandparents, the heartache of separation is finally ending

Naomi Jue and her granddaughter, Akiko Kotcher, during their recent visit after 15 months apart. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Days before the plane touched down in Arlington, Va., on a clear April evening, 5-year-old Akiko Kotcher was already preparing for her grandmother’s arrival. She excitedly announced the upcoming visit to her virtual kindergarten class and made colorful welcome signs to decorate the house. She built a fortress of pillows and blankets in the guest bedroom, so she could be as close as possible to her grandmother, even as they slept.

It had been well over a year since they were last together in January 2020, when Akiko’s grandparents, Naomi and Ronald Jue, hosted their two adult daughters, their partners and their children for a post-holiday visit in Fullerton, Calif. So much had happened since then, during the many months of pandemic isolation: Akiko turned 5, started kindergarten online and began learning how to read. Her parents — Karin Jue, 40, senior director of streaming media at PBS Kids, and John Kotcher, 37, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University — juggled full-time work with full-time child care. Meanwhile, Naomi, 77, devoted herself to caring for her 82-year-old husband, whose health began to decline after he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

From their homes on opposite coasts, they all stayed as close as they could through phone calls and FaceTime, through letters and drawings that Karin and Akiko sent in the mail each week.

When Ronald died at home in March, his grieving family longed to be safely together again. As soon as Karin was fully vaccinated in April, she flew to California to see her mother, and brought her back to Virginia for a visit.

Their journey is mirrored by families across the country: Among the many who have endured long separations, the first highly anticipated reunions are finally taking place. For grandparents in particular, the need to guard against covid-19 has been weighed against the yearning to be close to children and grandchildren, and an acute awareness of the time being lost. But now, with the arrival of vaccines, dates are circled on calendars, flights are booked, plans are made.

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In New Jersey, Vernon Gibbs II, 42, told his 5-year-old twins and 7-year-old son that they could spend the night with their grandmother — and, no, they wouldn’t have to wear masks in her home.

In Maryland, Mary Karapetian Alvord, 69, packed for a flight to California, her bag stuffed with gifts and stickers for her toddler granddaughter, whom Mary had last seen when the girl was 8 months old.

And in Northern Virginia, Naomi awoke in her daughter’s family home on a bright spring morning and embraced her grandchild for the first time in 15 months.

Later, Naomi would recall how healing it felt just to hold Akiko, the joyful moment unburdened by all that had happened — in the world, in their family — during their months apart. There was only an excited child, eager to welcome the person she’d been waiting for.

“Hi, Grammy!” Akiko said. “Come see my new room!”

The Gibbs family was never separated by more than a short drive — Vernon’s parents lived nearby in New Jersey, and his wife’s parents were in Brooklyn. But the routine contact between his kids and their grandparents still came to a halt when everything shut down in March 2020. Weekly drop-bys and frequent sleepovers were replaced with phone calls and FaceTime, and then — as the weather began to warm — with socially distanced, outdoor visits that felt better than nothing but still strange.

First through a phone screen, then through a mask, his children would ask his mother: “Grandma, when are we going to come to your house?”

“We kept telling them, ‘it’s not a good time yet,’ ” he says.

Vernon, a stay-at-home dad and children’s book author, and his wife, child psychiatrist Tresha Gibbs, 40, were closely following the numbers of reported coronavirus cases in their community, he says, “and the numbers were bad. Over the winter, we went back to staying in touch through phone calls.”

Vernon could tell his children were painfully aware of the distance. When the family shared prayers before dinner each night, he recalls, “my daughter started saying, ‘and please help the coronavirus go away, because it’s keeping us from Grandma and Grandpa.’ ”

Mary Karapetian Alvord, a Maryland-based psychologist, last saw her granddaughter when she babysat the 8-month-old on New Year’s Eve 2019, and she remembers a particular moment from that evening: When Mary stood to walk into her kitchen, the baby immediately followed, crawling across the floor and gazing up at her. Mary reached for her phone to capture the image. “I thought, ‘I have to take a picture of this, so I remember,’ ” she says. “It made my heart sing.”

In that moment, she says, it felt clear that a bond had begun to form. When Mary’s son and his family flew home to California the next day, she was already eager for the next visit, which she expected was only a couple of months away.

Instead, she had to settle for a stream of texts and photos, meant to help Mary and her husband feel like they were still witness to the baby who was growing at dazzling speed. Their son and daughter-in-law recorded the child’s first steps and first words, which soon became full phrases, and the grandparents watched the videos again and again. Through Zoom and FaceTime, Mary made a point to be animated, using stuffed animals to try to hold her granddaughter’s attention.

Her efforts seemed to be working: One day, as the toddler looked through one of her books, she pointed to an illustration of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — whose short, dark hair resembles Mary’s — and announced: “Mimi!”

“That made me feel like she was making some kind of connection,” Mary says. “It’s not the same, but it’s something.”

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Karin and Akiko also went to great lengths to maintain a sense of connection, especially as Ronald’s health deteriorated and his memory began to falter. Every Monday, mother and daughter would create elaborately illustrated letters and fact sheets for Ronald, coloring pictures of plants and birds and historical figures. Karin kept a family blog updated with photos and videos of Akiko, and Naomi would scroll through them when she felt especially nostalgic, especially far away. Naomi texted photos of Ronald tending his garden and sitting by the pond in their yard.

After her father died, Karin printed pictures of him — traveling with his wife when they were young, cradling his baby granddaughter — and Akiko hung them in her room.

“When you’re 5 years old, you don’t really understand the process of death. I feel like the distance, the time that passed — I don’t think it’s hit her,” Karin says. “But she knows that she won’t see her grandfather again.”

When Mary felt the ache of being far from her grandchild, she thought of what previous generations in her family endured. The daughter of Armenian immigrants, she never met her paternal grandmother, who lived in Iran when Mary was a young girl.

“So we also have to put all that’s happening in perspective,” she says, “I kept thinking: ‘Okay, it might be 18 months that I don’t see my granddaughter, or even longer — but I will see her.’ ”

And finally, she did. When Mary traveled to California in late March, after she was fully vaccinated, she was amazed by her granddaughter’s transformation: She was so much bigger, her hair longer and lighter than Mary had remembered. She spoke in sentences, sat on a booster seat at the dinner table and ran around with the boundless energy of a child about to turn 2.

“It’s Mimi!” Mary’s son told his daughter, as she regarded her grandmother in person for the first time in her memory.

“Mimi!” the toddler repeated cheerfully.

“There were pangs of sadness that we had not been able to see each other through all this time, that I haven’t been able to watch her grow in person,” Mary says, “but the overriding emotion was just the joy of being able to relish this week with her. And then the sadness of having to leave again. They’re so far away. But we’re already looking forward to the next trip.”

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Now that Mary’s husband is also fully vaccinated, she says, they’re planning to go back to California together in May. She is cautiously hopeful that they won’t have to endure such a long separation again.

“I do worry about the variants, the surges — I’m not assuming the end of the pandemic is linear,” she says. “But I was just so happy that I could meet her without a mask.”

The joy of a maskless reunion was also a welcome milestone for Vernon’s mother, he says. As soon as she was fully vaccinated, she told him that she was ready to host her grandchildren. When Vernon drove the kids to his mother’s house for Presidents’ Day weekend, they bolted from the car and slammed the doors behind them.

For three days, he says, they played on the neighborhood playground, ate too much candy, stayed up late. Their grandmother took them shopping, and let them pick out new toys. It was familiar, the usual routine, he says, but to the kids, it was bliss.

“It was like old times — they didn’t want to come home,” Vernon says. “Things are starting to feel really different from how it’s been, finally, and I’m really happy about that.”

Spring bloomed in earnest during Naomi's visit to Virginia, the neighborhood bursting with magnolias and cherry trees and redbuds, and she says she has found solace in both the company of her grandchild and the arrival of a new season.

“For someone who has lost a spouse of 54 years — it’s very difficult to put into words,” she says. “My husband was an avid gardener, and he really believed in the restorative power of nature. In Buddhism, the cherry blossom represents a life, and as it falls, that symbolizes the acceptance of a life span. So when I walk with Akiko and we just see the beauty around us, it’s very healing. You just realize that life does go on.”

Sometimes, Naomi shares memories of her late husband with Akiko — “I’ll ask her, ‘Do you remember?’ ” she says, “and she does.” But they are together for only two weeks, and Naomi is more focused on the present. “I haven’t talked that much about Grandpa, because I’m just trying to make this connection with her now,” Naomi says. “I’m really just trying to get to know my granddaughter again.”

So they curl up on the couch side by side and read stories. They set up their watercolor paints and create postcards they will send to each other when they are apart again, after Naomi returns to California. They walk together in the mornings, admiring the trees already turning from blush to green, the sidewalks strewn with fallen petals.