Parenting in Quarantine
She’s heard the wrong kind of yes’s and too many no’s. Yes, you can have a Barbie Dream Plane. Let’s order it on Amazon. Yes, we can throw an L.O.L. into the cart (because you can’t go to a real store and touch a real cart). Yes, we can add an Olaf and Kristoff (because what are your Ana’s and Elsa’s supposed to do without them?). And so our living room fills with plastic from China, confetti pink wrapping, and a cardboard primeval forest in winter.
Yes, you can mess up the bed, strip off the sheets, and jump on the mattress. Yes, you can bounce on the couch, toss its cushions into creek-bed stones because the floor is lava! Yes, dart into the office, but don’t disturb your father! Loop around the coffee table, but don’t bump into my laptop! Anything to release those four-year-old sparks, anything to replicate the outdoors that was.
No, you can’t have a playdate. No, you can’t go to the park.
Purell! Purell! has become a chant, the germ–a boogeyman waiting in the air beyond our small cement patio. Now, as our Burbank spring hurtles into summer, we’d be strolling to the park, tracing the spiderwebs along the way, and cooing to the dogs. Last summer we’d head there nightly. I’d watch her creep toward a sprinkler with newfound daring, giggling and quivering in its shifting waves of drops. Now every neighbor’s breath is a potential spray of pestilence. On our quick jaunts down the block, she in the stroller she’d eschewed for two years, as the world more fully blossoms before her, I am compelled to warn, Don’t touch! Don’t touch! Don’t touch ANYTHING.
“Remember last summer?” I can’t help asking over our hundredth game of Candy Land.
Shrugging, she draws a card. “Can’t look, can’t look.” She flashes it to me.
“Not the muffin.” Not the cupcake we call “the muffin,” sending her back toward start.
“The park nights?” I prod. “The sprinklers?”
“Nope.” She peeks for herself and advances her gingerbread one red square.
Maybe she won’t remember this lock-down, its imprint of confinement and fear.
But from stifling day to stifling day, she changes from one Disney nightgown to another, rejecting clothes. She’s growing so fast, her legs like solid tree trunks extending, the bottom pastel ruffles now grazing her rump. Yet she cowers in Zoom meetings with pre-school friends, drops her forehead onto a worksheet in boredom. She’s afraid to enter her own room alone. She’s tired more often, cries more readily, yawns mightily, refuses to nap, then nods off over an I-Pad churning YouTube. She grinds her teeth until her neck surrenders, her head tipping back, her mouth a strained, wet O.
In the morning she asks, “Is the germ gone, Momma?”
“No. I’m afraid. It’s not.”
One day she wants to go out for ice cream, but only if she can wear her nightgown and flip-flops. Only if we drive instead of walk.
Before leaving, I tug on latex gloves, strap on a surgical mask, pack Purell–PPE for a simple outing. Opening the door, I turn to my daughter.
“I know!” she huffs. “I won’t touch anything.”
I’ve missed the little so much—the assuring click! of her booster-seat latch, my firm steering wheel, Journey on the radio.
We roll the few blocks to Glenoaks, turn left then sharp right into the lot. We loop around the Fosters Freeze worn cement hut, its vivid posters heralding burgers, shakes, and twisters. Our bristly server appears in the drive-thru window, his lifted brows smiling for his covered mouth.
“Chocolate or vanilla?”
He knows us from our visits after school and after Saturday tot soccer, when we’d swing by with her father and another little girl and her father, and lounge at the small aluminum tables, now cordoned off.
“Vanilla!” my daughter shouts, which is helpful, because the masks make us all sound a bit like Chewbacca.
He hands me the cone with a gloved hand. I take it with a gloved hand and pass it to her. Afterward she knows she must Purell! Purell! Tossing a five, I tell him to keep the change, a three-dollar tip for a man on a frontline.
She gulps at the cone and I nose into the street, the traffic oddly bustling.
“Momma?” I hear. “Do you have the germ?”
I meet her serious eyes in the rearview. I want to drive and drive and drive.
“No, baby, I don’t.”
“Ohhhhhh!” she exclaims, her hand, the cone swinging outward with her eureka. “That’s because you brush your teeth!”
Maybe she’ll remember the Dream Plane, but not the germ. (There is some mystery as to what marks us, after all.) Maybe—without knowing why—the lick of a sprinkler will become a lifelong delight.
Jennifer Alessi holds a BA in English from Columbia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska. Her essays have appeared in Communion, Hippocampus, Nerve.com, Passages North, and River Teeth. Currently, she is navigating teaching college English from home while raising her four-year-old girl.