Every year since my daughter was born we’ve spent a large chunk of each summer in Montreal, where I grew up. It started because we were living in Europe, and it was impossible to visit for quick weekends, so we committed to longer visits — four, five, six weeks, all of us sheltered under a big roof, that magical falling-apart house I grew up in.
Now my daughter Noa is almost seven and we live in Los Angeles, but we still make the annual summer trip to Montreal. And last summer, even though my parents had sold their house of 45 years, we flew out for two months anyway and stayed in a rental a few blocks away from their new condo.
Here’s what I loved, all those tiny rituals I long for when we were so far away: Dad cooked dinner every night — lamb and duck and rhubarb crisp and so many pear clafoutis for my husband. Wine was always poured at six, Mom and me clinking glasses, sitting side by side on the couch, thumbing through old New Yorkers. Breakfast was cut up berries; then Mom came to the park with us and out for ice cream. There were so, so many trips to the pool. So many good Montreal bagels. So many Saturday morning expeditions to the outdoor market for paté and stinky cheese and the freshest strawberries for Mom’s pies.
Do you want to come along? was always answered with, yes, yes.
Last summer was the first time I really noticed that my parents were growing older. Stairs were really getting to be too much for my mother’s knees; she was losing her voice and my dad was losing his hearing so they had trouble communicating. Sometimes one or the other seemed a little confused about someone’s name or some event from our past. Suddenly I was acutely aware of the fact that they wouldn’t always be around for these summer visits. I knew I wanted to be with my parents as much as possible while they were still vibrant and in control of their faculties.
So when this insanity started, the first thing I worried about — other than the more obvious, universal concerns, which still haunt me — was will we make it to Montreal this summer?
It’s amazing how quickly that concern has since shifted to when will I see my parents again?
For the first few weeks, we talked, as usual, over the phone, usually while I was on a walk, but what was there to say? We rehashed the news — the latest from the school board, the city, the governor, the prime minister, the president. What have you heard? What about you? We went in circles.
Finally my dad came up with reasons to see our faces every day, to pretend we were actually together, and to relieve me of the considerable parenting burden I was under. I thought Noa might like to read Winnie the Pooh with me? he texts me one day. Do you have a copy?
Yes! my daughter says enthusiastically because she knows what this means: songs, all those songs only Grandpa can play. When he calls for their first date, she grabs the phone away and hides in her dream tent, alone with Grandma and Grandpa, singing along.
Isn’t it funny how a bear likes honey? my dad sings, plays on the piano. Buzz buzz buzz, I wonder why he does?
I could be anywhere, hearing this music: At his grand piano in our old house, where he sang these songs to my sister and me, then to my niece and nephew, and, more recently, to Noa. (Songs even my mother — the self-declared “music hater” — sings along with, too, doing a little jig to boot.) I could be in Woodstock at one of our 30-year strong August family reunions, where he also sang to the kids when they were little, each of them snuggled up to him on the piano bench. These are the songs of all of our childhoods. They are the songs that bring us back to him.
But now he’s singing and playing them through the phone, a gazillion miles away. Noa is delighted, but I start crying behind the bedroom door. Most of the time, I feel hardened by trying to survive life in a pandemic — a survival tactic, a good one — but the sound of his voice singing those notes undoes me.
When this started, I said to others: I think it’s harder for the people whose parents are close by. Having them in the same city and not being able to hug them? Not having them over for dinner? Not letting them into the house? I’m used to my parents being far away, so this doesn’t feel that different.
But now that doesn’t feel true. When will we ever board a plane again? How many months (or years?) can I wait? My husband and I find ourselves saying absurd things to each other: I guess we’ll have to drive to Montreal. Then we remember: gas station bathrooms, hotels, restaurants, the Canadian border, his foreign passport, 14-day quarantine, another city shut down.
I miss you so much, I say to my parents after the singing ends. I’ve pulled myself together but I can barely look at their pixelated faces on my phone screen.
Oh, they say, and I know they will cry. Let’s not think about it. One day at a time.
One day at a time.
But one day at a time… until when?
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