When I moved to the UK from the States in 2016, I was expecting my first daughter. Nineteen months after her birth, I’d have my second. Though the choice to move so far away from my relatives wasn’t an easy one, I felt I’d be able to save up to visit at least annually; and I knew my mother and youngest brother would try to do the same. For the next three years, things more or less went according to that plan. It was a joy to see my eldest daughter, Luna, begin to commit her abuela, tio, tias, and primos to long-term memory. We felt grateful for technology as well, which could fill in the gaps between visits.
Never could I have predicted that we’d eventually have to utilize that same technology to fill in a 16-month gap. With no end to the Coronavirus pandemic in sight (and still no flights available between my local airport and my mother’s), my daughters and I are profoundly feeling my family’s absence; in particular, their querida Aba (a pet name for my mother).
Before, we used to rely on FaceTime, Skype, or Whatsapp videos as our secondary form of interaction, but now these tools have become the primary way to make my mother a part of my children’s lives. Unfortunately, when you spend over a year interacting with someone only through a 5×2 inch screen, you begin to realize that these means of communication are simply not a substitute for in-person interaction.
It’s a feeling I’m certain countless fellow parents are experiencing by this point—many of whom have been unable to be with their children and their children’s grandparents simultaneously all this time.
Like many toddlers, my kids simply do not have the attention span to sit through an extended FaceTime session with their grandmother (or anyone, for that matter). If they were spending time with her in person, I know they would fill their days with visits to the park, the petting zoo, the beach, museums, or indoor play centers. I know they’d cuddle up on the sofa watching Frozen and Frozen 2 back to back (maybe even twice on a rainy day). My mom would make them their favorite foods—punctuating visits with the smell and taste of freshly-made cranberry pancakes, homemade French fries, or perfectly-crispy turkey bacon.
There’s that old adage that says grandparents are there for the fun, while parents are there for the discipline. I never used to get it (surely, parents could be there for fun too, right?). I realize now that the kind of fun my mother offers my girls, however, is irreplaceable.
In the earlier days of the first lockdown, I could find amusement in the sight of my daughters kissing Aba’s face on the screen, or hugging my phone in an attempt to hug her. Now, the sight reminds me of just how difficult this past year has been.
So many of us have lost so much: jobs, childcare, our health, our loved ones. Even those of us lucky enough to not have lost anyone to the virus itself are still operating with tremendous absence. The eradication of physical touch and connection beyond members of our primary household has undoubtedly taken its toll.
When I speak to fellow parent friends, I hear about how their own kids are struggling as well. Those who were previously used to seeing their grannies and grandads on a regular basis now ask for them every day. Even my own daughters, who saw Abuela only twice a year, do the same. Luna wonders when she will next be able to visit the macaque monkeys she and Aba enjoyed visiting the last time they met in person. She has committed that day to memory, no doubt in part because it is among the only actual recollections she has of her grandmother that exist outside of a smartphone.
While navigating these unprecedented times, I try to find comfort in the fact that, growing up, my mother and I also lived over 2,000 miles away from her birth family in Colombia. I would see my own grandparents only 15 days a year or so. I can’t say I have countless memories of my Abuelita, but I have enough to know that our time together was pretty precious. I can recall making a beaded necklace with her when I was around eight years old. Luna actually found it and wore it around the house a few weeks ago, marvelling at all the colors.
The other memory is of my grandmother and I snuggling up in her bedroom. I’d been visiting Colombia on my own that summer while my mother worked on her university degree back home. I was only supposed to be there for four weeks, but I didn’t want to leave. I remember my abuela calling my mom and pleading that I stay longer. In the end, she convinced my mother to let me stay for the rest of my summer break.
Based on only a couple of memories, I know that my grandmother and I had some lovely times together. I can only hope that the same will be true of my own mother and her granddaughters—of all the little ones missing Grandma or Grandpa right now.
The situation we are living through will not last forever; and one day, hopefully in the not too distant future, our kids and their grandparents will rise to the challenge of making up for all the missed fun.