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Some objects will remind us of the pandemic long after it’s over

The “pandemic panda” Theresa Vargas and her 6-year-old son made together.
The “pandemic panda” Theresa Vargas and her 6-year-old son made together. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
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Out of the blue, as kids tend to do, my 6-year-old came to me one morning months into the pandemic with an urgent request: Could I make him a stuffed panda?

I looked at his big pleading eyes, considered what the task would require and gave him a sincere response.

No way!

Please. It can be a little panda.

No.

Please. I will help make it.

No.

At 6, kids are still young enough to believe their parents are capable of anything. Multiply 12 times 12 together quickly enough, and they think you’re a math genius. Type out 500 words and they have no doubt you can write a book.

But there was one major blockade to my son’s request: I didn’t know how to sew, at least not well.

I’m that person who has pants with cuffs held up by carefully positioned safety pins. I buy blazers with three-quarter sleeves not because they’re stylish, but because they won’t require tailoring.

Two years ago, my mom bought me a sewing machine for my birthday, but before that day my son asked me to use it, I had only turned it on twice.

The first time came when my mom was visiting from Texas and, with her guidance, I created a few jagged hems on dresses I mostly wore at home. If a piece required any precision, she sewed it. During that trip, more than a few items in my closet benefited from her skilled hands because when you’re 5 feet tall, even petite sizes are sometimes too long.

The second time I used the machine came about two months into the pandemic. I happened to see a tutorial on mask-making and the task looked so simple, I thought surely I could turn my children’s outgrown shirts into face masks featuring sharks, dinosaurs and superheroes.

The results were hilarious, and unwearable.

At one point, my 6-year-old tried to squeeze his head into a mask with elastic extending all the way around it. I was trying to invent a kid-friendly mask that wouldn’t easily slip off little ears and I accidentally created a cotton muzzle. My son pretended it wasn’t that uncomfortable. He also never asked to wear it again.

At the end of an isolating year, even the embarrassing, frustrating, weird parts of family gatherings feel missed

During the summer, my husband and I worked hard to make sure he and his 8-year-old brother didn’t feel much stress from the pandemic and, for the most part, they didn’t. But then the school year started, and I immediately noticed changes in my younger son.

Before schools closed, he was a gregarious, imaginative kindergartner who easily made friends. He was also one of the bravest kids I knew. He could get shots without crying or even flinching. Then came time for him to start first grade virtually, and that confident child turned into one who begged each day to keep his camera off so that his classmates wouldn’t see his “sad face.”

Since then, thanks in large part to a kind and accommodating teacher, he has gained more confidence participating in class through a screen. But he wasn’t yet in that place when he asked me to make that stuffed panda.

I explained to him that I didn’t know how to sew well enough to make it look like anything sold in stores and that I only had old T-shirts to use as material. He then replied in a way that finally got me to stop saying no.

Please. It’s okay if it’s ugly, I’ll love it anyways.

It is hard to see past a moment when you’re in it, but years from now, we will look back and notice things that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the pandemic.

There are, of course, painful, intangible things that this year unexpectedly brought: lost loved ones, lost careers, lost hope.

But there are also objects that we can touch and hold, that when this is all over (whenever that might be) will possess the power to remind us instantly of this time. Maybe it’s a puzzle a family completed together. Maybe it’s a Post-it note that helped someone get through some difficult days. Maybe it’s a watch or a plant clipping or a card.

The instinct to hold on to mementos of even the most awful and trying events is human. It’s why museums collect the objects left at the sites of tragedies. In the days after the Virginia Tech shooting, I was on the school’s Blacksburg campus talking to the group of people who were in charge of deciding what to keep and discard of the things individuals had sent from across the world in a show of solidarity. As I stood in the middle of piles of paper cranes, stuffed animals and bibles, I knew I wouldn’t soon forget that scene.

Ten years later, when the anniversary of the shooting approached, I reached back out to some of the people who were most affected by that day. Each told of keeping an object from that time that held a special significance. A university official kept an angel ornament made by a stranger. A mother who lost her only child turned the T-shirts collected from her daughter’s dorm room into a quilt. And a first responder saved her rescue-squad jacket, unwashed and stained with blood, to preserve “that memory, that pain, that loss.”

What was saved: Ten years after the Virginia Tech shooting, objects of grief

Right now, even as we wait on officials to speed up distribution of the vaccine, we are creating and exchanging the objects that years from now, with just a glance, will remind us of what we experienced during this time. The good. The bad. And the monotonous.

What is yours? What tangible thing, whether it be sentimental or funny or practical, will represent your mile marker for this moment? Please share in the comments or email me. If I collect enough, I will share them in another column.

Mine took about four hours to make. My son and I created our own pattern, cut T-shirts together and I did my best to sew straight while he stuffed strips of fabric into the belly and head of our bear.

When we were done, we were both proud of the final, far-from-perfect product.

My son hugged his new stuffed animal and placed him in the most prominent position on his bed.

He also gave him a name: Bamboo.

I quietly call him something else: our pandemic panda.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

They thought they’d be near the front of the line for the vaccine. Now, they don’t know where they stand.

In ‘achingly beautiful’ letters to Biden, students who are learning English, working full time and taking care of siblings share their hopes

Stark, devastating pleas show child poverty and covid colliding to create ‘an unimaginable time’ for country’s youngest

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