I have a reading chair in my family room by the fireplace. It has been empty since March. Pre-pandemic I used to read with my preschool grandchildren in that comfy chair. Often they would go to my book stash, choose a storybook, and toddle back to our chair. I love nothing more than reading with a child in my arms. I miss nothing more.
But these days I don’t see the little ones often. When I do, it is outdoors, and they hide behind bear or dog masks. Baby Evy and four-year old Harper blow me air kisses, and sometimes Harper forgets and hugs my legs.
Macy used to be a regular here for sleepovers, but since the first surge of COVID, she has been in online school, and I see her mostly on Zoom. During this time, she has grown taller, more serious, and sounds far too mature for her nine years. The change feels too sudden. When I Facetimed her a few weeks ago to discuss what she wanted for Christmas, she warned, “Gigi, this is not a normal Christmas. I don’t want normal presents.” She placed her finger on her mouth and looked skyward. “I want to see my best friend, Ellie. I mean really see her. We are in the same class, like the same things, but we have never been allowed to play together. Also, I want a vaccine to save lives!” I could feel the pain of being nine and not having time with friends. Macy missed her buddies as much as I missed her.
The pandemic is changing us, and each one of us has faced the strain of adapting and rewriting our personal story. While I struggle with the distance from friends and grandkids, not all is lost. I am finding new ways to connect. One tradition popped up unexpectedly.
Now that I write at home—which is an internal battle of its own—I have begun rewarding myself by baking cookies some afternoons. Word trickled out to the grandkids and within weeks I was dubbed the new Picasso of Pastry. This is a lie. But I perpetuate this myth with the hope of rare and socially distanced visits with the littles in my backyard wrapped in the warmth of the desert winter. Lately, my favorite moments have happened on that patio where we remove our masks only long enough to munch a cookie, and we share what is happening. Our pandemic stories. Some sad. Some happy.
While I have not resorted to hoarding toilet paper, I am guilty of stock-piling a near-truckload of Betty Crocker Cookie Mix which comes in a surprising array of flavors from dark double chocolate to snickerdoodle. I am learning how to improvise with extra milk, teaspoons of Madagascar vanilla, and when needed–extra chocolate chips. I am learning to release my inner cookie monster and fill an entire role of wax paper with baked treats in short order.
Before Christmas I stamped out countless sugar cookies in the shapes of Christmas trees, Santa, stars, and even airplanes for Steven, my young grandson. Martha Stewart does not live here, but I have managed to do a reputable imitation given these strange times.
Of course, COVID left its imprint on our Christmas. Three of our friends are sick —one seriously. One-hundred-year-old Grandma Edna became so anxious about visiting our home that she called ten times on Christmas Eve to discuss it, and finally cancelled at the last minute. Steven ate so many gingerbread cookies he spent most of Christmas day in bed.
But it was Christmas, and we did our best to carry on. My sons and their families, eight of us, gathered on our back patio for a Christmas picnic. Afterwards four of us played our favorite new COVID game, double beachball soccer. The children made it up and the rules change often, but it centers on keeping two beach balls on the grass and kicking or hitting the balls that come to you to someone else before it rolls out of bounds. It seems no one ever wins this game, but no one ever loses either. With two active beach balls zigzagging in all directions, you can get your daily exercise in short-order! The air shimmers with children’s laughter.
Later when we munched iced sugar cookies and chatted by the fireplace. I asked the children how this Christmas was different, and there was no shortage of answers.
“It’s a stay-away, stinky-cheese-man Christmas!” four-year-old Harper said with glee. We all laughed, and Harper explained. “At school we didn’t like to call it social distancing, so Mrs. Vargas let us choose a better name. We read this book, The Stinky Cheese Man.” Harper pinched her masked nose. “Whew. Everyone stays away from the stinky cheese man—and when someone forgets the six-feet rule, we say to them “stay-away, stinky-cheese-man!” One-year-old-Evy squealed with delight, “Chee-eese!”
“That’s cool, Harper,” Macy said. “Gigi, I got some Roblox toys, but this year the best part of Christmas was seeing Ellie at the park two days ago. She is my best school friend, and we had never really seen each other.” She paused for emphasis. “Seeing a friend–that was the best gift! Also, we got the vaccine, and I think that is a good gift for everyone! Maybe in a few months we can have sleepovers at Gigi’s, and we can all read together again in the reading chair!”
Her words rippled through my heart. Harper clapped. “Yeah. One of my favorite gifts is Gigi’s cookies!” she bellowed as she flew an iced airplane up-up through the air with hope.
There in the warmth of both the sun and the children’s words, I realized how fully I love sitting in this moment with their joyful energy. In the time of COVID that was undoubtedly my best gift.