24 May 2021, The Tablet

New roots and new shoots as lockdown eases

New roots and new shoots as lockdown eases

In spite of the cold weather, some flowers, such as this salvia, are in bloom.
Ruth Gledhill

Normal service is being resumed, tentatively, slowly and gradually. Not just officially, either; there have been small but incremental relaxations of our own care and vigilance over the last few weeks, much more noticeable in retrospect, as every tiny change felt terrifying. I never stopped essential shopping (because it was essential, obviously), but now I feel allowed to go shopping more often, I’m still not actually doing it. My pool is open again, so I’m swimming again, but nervously, and I miss a day as soon as I feel even slightly under the weather. More of us have managed to have our hair cut. One problem is working out what the new normal is supposed to be, and how long it will take to feel comfortable with it.

The garden is a great reminder of how things keep moving and changing, even if it doesn’t feel like it. My camellia has produced its first flower, definitely because I have been emptying the teapot at its base (after all, camellias come from China originally). The sheer contrast between last April and May, so warm and sunny that eating outside was not penitential, and the current year, with snow even last week, made us acutely aware that this has been going on for a long time. The tiny Christmas tree that I bought as a prop for everyone’s office Christmas Zoom calls has sprouted miniature pale green tufts at the end of each little branch. It’s so much more than a year now that I can remember how at this point last year, lockdown life had become normal, and what was going on (or not). I don’t remember too much about the very early stages of lockdown because we all seemed to be numbed by shock. Ascension Thursday came round again, and we’re still nervous about going out, and sympathising strongly with the apostles in the Upper Room.

One huge step forward happened last weekend, when the shield maiden packed up (some of) her traps and set off back to her house. Rachel was convinced that shielding would be extended at least once more, and I suppose it might yet happen, but it seemed worth trying to return to nearer to normal. She has been making a Batman blanket for one of her brothers in a sort of Penelope project. It was very slow and very complicated, took up a lot of space and needed five patty tins to hold all the different balls of yarn at its maximum phase, but finally it drew to an end, I got my patty tins back, and the blanket was handed over (to great acclaim). It helped us all to adjust to the idea that Rachel was going to be going home again.

Organising the actual transfer was quite fun. Practical logistics are something which we can tackle. We still have enough deliveries set up here, but Rachel had been away from her own home since just before Lockdown One. She didn’t want to have to shop too much to start with, which seemed sensible, shops being disturbing places for those who have been shielding; so she has organised food deliveries at her house and taken supplies from here as well, so I know that she won’t starve whatever happens. She also has a real milkman, who delivers twice a week. This is very impressive to us all, as the grandparents always had milkmen, but we have never managed it, what with travelling and wildly fluctuating consumption depending on which children were at home. Even better, Rachel’s milkman does a produce box, and since she doesn’t like grapefruit, she’s been sent a pineapple each week so far. She thinks the milkman scheme is the best thing since sliced bread.

I feel very mixed about it, though, more than I expected. It’s the roots and wings problem all over again : I want her to be bold and independent, but I worry about her more when I can’t keep her safe. She’s had two jabs, and there is absolutely nothing I can do for her that she can’t do for herself (she even went and collected her own medicine from the chemist), but I can no longer police the moat protecting her from the world, and I worry about it. At least when they are little and start growing towards independence, it’s gradual, and you become accustomed by stages;  this ‘with one bound she was free’ version takes some getting used to!

We are hardly empty-nesting, nor likely to be for quite some time. Those children still at home were always planning to find somewhere independent to live, maybe with friends, maybe nearer to work, but obviously that has all been on hold. Mary, as a digital freelancer, enjoys the idea of being able to live anywhere, and before the pandemic was planning a tour of the country, visiting friends, to see if anywhere was particularly appealing. These plans are now being (very) tentatively refloated, and we’ll have to see how the situation develops as restrictions are relaxed. But at least she has been able to have her wisdom teeth out, and I would have wanted her at home for that anyway. Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that children are like teeth. When you have a tooth (or four) out, the gap feels huge even if the teeth were not, and similarly, Rachel’s departure has left a big gap in the family line-up.

Margaret has been working solidly for about nine months and has never yet spent a day in an office. Her firm is considering various options on flexible working, but she feels that she hardly knows what “normal” might look like in the circumstances. She’d like to see more of her friends, maybe looking for a shared flat in an area where there are already people she knows, but this sounds like a time-consuming process rather than something that might happen next week. Interestingly, this is what has been going on over time with Peter already. He’s moved into an area where some of his friends were established, and they are all hatching plans to encourage a couple of others to think about moving there also. Maybe this will be a good aspect of the new normal, where people think about living among congenial people instead of just worrying about where you can afford to commute from.

It’s difficult to look forward to change when fear has been the atmosphere for so long. What did you do in the war, Daddy?  I made it my job to make sure that everyone was clean, fed and as comfortable as could be expected. It felt as though it was going on forever, though of course it wasn’t going to last, and I wouldn’t want it to;  but the huddle was a safe place to be (as far as we could manage). I feel like the mother hen whose adopted ducklings all took to the water, while she stayed clucking anxiously on shore, and we haven’t even spotted a pond yet. I’m all for the children being cautious, but I don’t want them to be fearful; and yet I have had two injections, and they are all still unvaccinated, apart from Rachel, who was done for being clinically vulnerable and working for the NHS.

My greatest fear has always been that someone would need to go into hospital, and I wouldn’t be allowed to be there, however ill they might become. This idea still reduces me to absolute panic, but it’s interesting to think about how medicine has changed. Nowadays you expect to be able to stay with your child, or at least close by, but the pandemic has sent us all back fifty years or so, when you had to leave your child in a ward and come back only for visiting hour and to collect them at the end. Thank God we never had to take anybody to hospital except for A&E (until Mary’s wisdom teeth, and that was day surgery, which was bad enough), but my husband had his appendix out when he was little and he remembers being delivered to the ward and watching his mother leave. It was traumatic for him; I can imagine what his mother felt, and this is with everyone trying to be as kind as possible. So many families have now had to go through that again, for loved ones of all ages, and it’s not something that anyone would wish to experience.

Eventually there will be fewer people around the table, and I’ll have to relearn how to shrink the cooking. I always find it difficult to make less than the whole family’s-worth of things like pasta, rice and potatoes, but I’ve done it before and I shall do it again. But I’m always sad when I have to count the potatoes out to make sure there are not too many. On the other hand, there’s only so many things you can do with leftover potato (though this family’s appetite for gnocchi is positively enormous). Rachel was so worried about this (the produce box comes with two compulsory kilos, which is more than she can manage) that she has borrowed my favourite potato recipe book. That’s fine, because I still have enough people to eat the potatoes. At least for now.

Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn



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