Through this pandemic winter, the carefully constructed outdoor and distanced socializing of playgrounds, backyards and picnics, iced over. The thermostat hunkered down like the rest of us.
But on a rare warm day in February, I shrugged off the stress of my face-to-face workday and looked forward to my boys’ return from their father’s place the next morning. In 12 months in which there has been too much togetherness, I still crave my children’s perpetual motion and peripatetic conversation like missing limbs when they are gone. I awaited the results of my weekly COVID test, the added anxiety like a low-level static, humming over the exhausting experience of being a single parent in a pandemic, where making ends meet and remaining socially connected both have their risks.
The light and warmth transformed the afternoon into something inviting — playful even. This happens every year in New England on the first warm days after the heavy slog of darkness, cold, snow and ice. It is still winter on the calendar, but suddenly we can see through to its conclusion.
I walked through my too-quiet neighborhood, mask on and glasses fogged up, face pointed at the sunshine.
Most years, on this kind of afternoon, the streets, bike paths and parks of my neighborhood would be teeming with people drawn from their homes by the sunshine, donning short sleeves and bare legs even if the temperature is only 48 degrees. This year, though, the warming weather also brought the anniversary of this sad, sequestered life.
I walked through my too-quiet neighborhood, mask on and glasses fogged up, face pointed at the sunshine. I passed only a few fellow pedestrians and parkgoers. Then I paused, wondering what I heard. Had I imagined it? The unmistakable chatter and laughter of a group of teenagers.
For a moment, I was disoriented. The sound of people being together — talking, laughing, not to mention breathing — has become foreign in the last 11 months. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was immediately suspicious of this mirth. Surely it could not be safe. So much of what was once normal in life now feels fraught.
I traced the chatting and giggling to the parking lot of a small strip mall coffee shop. And then I couldn’t help but smile.
The teens had parked their cars on either side of the railroad ties that divide the parking lot — they faced each other trunk to trunk. They sat in the backs of their cars, smiles on their faces, coffee cups in hand. A couple of them had hatchbacks or SUVs that made this positioning easy, but two teens literally lay inside their open trunks.
I traced the chatting and giggling to the parking lot of a small strip mall coffee shop. And then I couldn’t help but smile myself.
As I took in this scene, both hopeful and bleak, my face fell. In a year when we have lost so much, I’ve worried about losing my capacity for joy. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that hit the hardest.
Teenagers can get a bad rap, with their brains not yet fully formed, their impulse control still in question, but there they were, using the gift of late winter warmth and light to commune at a distance. In a year when too many things have gone wrong, not least our ability to be in community with each other, these teens figured out how to be social and to do it safely. I couldn’t help but let their commitment renew mine.
That night, I invited a friend over, though we had the liberty of my back porch rather than trunks. We donned our masks and walked in the dark, then we sat six feet apart in down coats and fleece blankets. We shared Brighter Days Are Coming beers, hoping it was true. We discussed kids, skiing and solo parenting. When I could no longer stop shivering, we said our good-byes without hugging. Like so much of this past year, it was not great, but it was better than nothing.
The days are growing warmer and longer as winter abandons its grip, but the price of survival has been steep and strange — bodies shivering or crouched into trunks, the alarming shriek of laughter, so much that once felt life-giving now potentially dangerous.
The losses we accrued to get here will not melt with the rising temperatures, and learning to live with what we’ve lost will be the work of this new season.