“Can I come stay with you and Dad for a few days?” my daughter texted. “I need a change of scenery.”
Twenty-six years old, five years out of college, 3.8 miles away renting an apartment with a long-time friend for four years, second month into her new job—she was weary from more than one year of the pandemic.
I was proud of her independence, the way she was establishing herself in a digital media career. She’d turned a small living room into a We Work space with her roommate, but that had grown confining over the winter. We were all healthy, luckier than many. Yet everyone felt the stress of living and working 24/7—even with good friends or loving spouses.
For the past year I’d met our daughter to dine outdoors in her neighborhood, masked and lately shivering in spite of restaurant heaters. We’d take a brisk walk afterwards, where conversations felt stilted.
“What?” I’d say repeatedly—words muffled through our double masks. She’d be a foot ahead of me while I tried to keep up with her youthful pace. Masks made my nose run; it was difficult to engage in an intimate talk or be a raconteur when searching for tissues in my purse. Soon I’d be stuffing tissues inside my bra like my grandma.
My husband and I gladly became her change of scenery.
She insisted on getting tested before returning to her childhood home, quarantining until she received negative results. I was between my first and second Covid vaccines. The pandemic had been full of calculated, anxiety-provoking risks. This felt as safe as we could get.
Would she leave dishes unwashed in the sink? Would she make her bed? Did it matter anymore?
My husband picked up our daughter on a Thursday evening after work. She arrived with a small duffle, her laptop, and a half-read novel. I wanted to hug her before she even threw off her coat, noticing but not remarking that she still used the dining room chair as a hanger. Unable to remember our last embrace, I told myself it was too early for that kind of closeness. I’d waited for a hug for a year. I could last a few more days, assuring that none of us had surprising symptoms. Just in case.
It was the third time she’d re-entered our empty nest—after college, post B.A. living home for a year, and now a self-supporting adult. Would she leave dishes unwashed in the sink? Would she make her bed? Did it matter anymore? At least I wouldn’t have to worry about where or when she’d get home at night, because there was nowhere to go.
Each to Her Own Corner
Every day we worked on opposite ends of the living room on our respective computers. I sat at my desk by the window, my back to her; she was ensconced on the couch where she once did high school homework. My husband had taken over her bedroom for his photography equipment, giving new meaning to “you can’t go home again.”
Once I mistakenly took a sip from her water glass, and we both gasped. Cautiously we began using different types of drinking vessels. I joked it was like putting our names on a Solo cup at a college frat party.
“Are you warm enough?” I’d ask, more often than I should.
Politely she nodded, kind enough not to mention that I was still an overprotective mother who believed her child needed a sweater whenever the temperature dipped below 60.
“Are you hungry?”
“I just ate breakfast.”
It was eleven-thirty. I was already thinking about lunch.
“Am I disturbing you?” she’d ask.
Did she really mean: was I disturbing her?
Gestures Big and Small
I didn’t want to sound like her mother, but that’s who I was—and always would be. I’d adapted through every one of her developmental stages, trying my best not to infantilize her. I was always getting used to her new levels of maturity. Yet sometimes I had to remind myself that she was no longer a teenager who had to be reprimanded for spending too much time on social media rather than studying. Now she met work deadlines from her own internal motivations.
Back in the home where she’d grown up, she washed her dishes, and mine too. She did her laundry. “I’ll fold it later,” she explained, called to a staff meeting on Slack.
When I passed by her tee shirts, rumpled temporarily on my bed, I folded them and put them in a pile. Not that I’m a neatnik, but I liked feeling needed. Even though I really wasn’t. I didn’t recognize many of her shirts, a microcosm for how much I no longer knew about her life.
When I was in a Zoom meeting, she’d show up with an avocado and turkey sandwich she’d just constructed, surreptitiously delivering it to my desk, crouched down so no one would see her. One of her home-baked cookies magically appeared fifteen minutes later, as if delivered by a friendly ghost.
Every evening we had dinner together, menus planned and mostly cooked by her. My husband always did the dishes, but now he enjoyed a leisurely after-dinner tea, and by the time he rose from the table our daughter was already wiping down kitchen counters.
And Finally…After a Whole Year
On the sixth day I said, “I need a hug,” finally feeling safe enough to get that close.
“Sweet,” she said.
I held on longer than she did.
Suddenly we began to have long talks. That hug had finally erased the distance we’d endured during the pandemic, making up for all we’d missed on those cold afternoon walks. I sat rapt, catching up to what her friends were up to, as if I’d skipped Season Three of a four-part Netflix series. I felt relieved, hearing she was happy and thriving in a new job. We played Bananagrams, our favorite game, and she won with the word “katydid.”
“What’s that?” I asked. “Never heard of it.”
“It’s an insect,” she said confidently.
Who was she? My city girl, an entomologist.
On her last night she suggested we give each other foot massages, an indulgence we’d initiated when she was young. I had my best sleep in months.
Extending the COVID Bubble
I thought she’d stay for the weekend and she left 12 days later. I kept offering her small token gifts to take home: flour for baking (once a rare commodity at the beginning of the pandemic, but not anymore), her favorite chocolate bars, homemade granola. She accepted a few, then gently said she didn’t need anything else.
I kept wanting to give, wrestling with my own need to be her mother and the truth that she was independent now. I couldn’t give her an end to the pandemic, nor replace a lost year in her young life, when the freedom to even go to the grocery store was fraught with fear of germs. Granola and love was all I had.
I couldn’t give her an end to the pandemic, nor replace a lost year in her young life. Granola and love was all I had.
The next morning, my husband said, “It feels so quiet in the house.”
She’d left the remaining cookie dough in the freezer, knowing her father adored them oozing right out of the oven. An out-of-town friend used to “mistakenly” leave something behind, when she ended her visits. She’d quip, “That’s so I’ll have to come back again.”
I placed my daughter’s toothbrush into her former medicine cabinet. She’d be back. Different, but back.
A week later a mysterious delivery arrived at my door, a cake box and a sourdough bread in a paper bag. The card only mentioned the name of a local pop-up bakery. Who could have sent it? My husband suggested I ask our daughter.
“Yes it was me!” she texted, “a congratulations treat for your second Covid vaccine shot.”
“Sweet,” I said, biting into a pain au chocolat.