(From left) Drew Himmelstein's husband, Aaron, and their sons, Harvey and Nate. (Photo/Himmelstein)
(From left) Drew Himmelstein's husband, Aaron, and their sons, Harvey and Nate. (Photo/Himmelstein)

A lovely return home, but in Maine my kids ran free

My gregarious younger son was holding court on our stoop as he is wont to do, chatting it up with whichever passing pedestrian would give him the time of day. “My name is Harvey, and I’m FOUR years old!” he announced with flourish. Everyone kept a 6-foot distance; everyone was safe.

Then an older man walked over and tried to give Harvey a high five. Harvey stepped back and said to him, “I can’t, it’s coronavirus.”

As soon as the Covid-19 crisis began, we started talking to our kids about social distancing. My children understand it just fine. When we go for walks, they make wide arcs around people we pass on the sidewalk, keeping 6 feet between them. They keep their masks on without complaint. And they wash their hands as soon as they get home. I don’t know why they’ve gotten with the program so easily, but I’m grateful that they have. Hopefully they will set an example for our neighbors who still think it’s OK to offer high fives.

We live in Brooklyn, where right now the sky is blue, the trees are in full bloom, and the weather is perfect. We venture outside cautiously, at odd hours early in the morning when the park is less populated. We’ve discovered new ways to have fun, without friends or playgrounds: flying kites, racing along logs, building forts with fallen branches. We’ve fallen into a rhythm managing home school and adult work in our apartment. Life feels manageable. Monotonous. Ominous. But manageable.

When school was first canceled in the middle of March, the pandemic felt overwhelming and the threats impossible to understand. We were told to stay 6 feet away from other people, and yet the supermarkets were jam-packed. School was canceled, but children still gathered at playgrounds. The rate of infection was climbing, and more than anything I was terrified of our family getting sick and being stuck inside in our apartment for weeks on end, with my husband and I too sick to adequately care for our highly active, highly energetic children.

So we accepted a generous offer from my aunt, who moved out of her home in Portland, Maine, so that we could move into it. We gassed up the car and made the five-hour drive without coming into contact with anyone, taking only a single 10-minute stop at an abandoned picnic area so my kids could pee in the woods. We followed the advice to self-quarantine for two weeks, not expecting to stay much longer than that. But as the infection rate continued to climb, it seemed inadvisable to return to the city. Plus, my kids had a backyard and trees they could climb without leaving home. My aunt came back, making us a quintet. The weeks turned to months.

When it became clear we would likely stay on through summer, we realized we would need to return to the city one more time. Our kids needed their summer clothes, and our apartment needed a good cleaning if it was going to sit vacant for another few months. I worried that onions were molding in the corner of our kitchen and mice had moved in; when we left, we hadn’t prepared to be gone for so long.

We came back to a city in which people have developed routines to minimize risk. Most people in our neighborhood wear masks when walking outside, and people line up outside the grocery stores instead of flooding them chaotically. My husband and I are lucky enough to be able to work from home, and being back in the city has been easier than I thought it would be, even stuck inside an apartment without a yard. We’re able to have picnics on our stoop, chat with our neighbors and even get adequate time outdoors.

Last evening was beautiful and warm, and I picked up food from a local restaurant so we could have a dinner picnic on the baseball fields in the park. It would be one of our last nights out of the house for a while; when we return to Maine, we’ll have to self-isolate again for two weeks, according to the governor’s order. As I walked to the restaurant, I was hit with a flash of what life used to be like — heading out to dinner on a beautiful spring evening, being out in the city around lots of other people and not worrying about it. And then I picked up my food through a small window, minimizing contact, and set out for a socially distanced meal with my family.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.