Exiting the Cold Snap

This morning’s temperature was 54 degrees warmer than it was a week ago. Already it feels like a distant memory to get up and check the thermometer, only to see it in the -20s, day after frigid day. To wait until mid-day for the air temp to reach a balmy -4 before setting out for a run. To forego my afternoon friend walks in favor of warmth by the fireplace. While Covid was socially confining, the cold compounded it.

As the mercury rose, so did the options for outdoor activities and Covid-save ways to meet up with family and friends. I readily embraced the opportunities.

First up was the Luminary Walk. This candle-lit stroll on the Lakewalk was part of the city’s Cold Front activities intended to celebrate winter. Ironically, it was postponed by the real cold front. Its new date fell on the first “warm” evening, a sure indication that I should get out and do it, and I convinced Rich to join me. Because we could.

Luminary Walk

To celebrate our son Erik’s birthday, we arranged to meet up with him and his wife, Katie, at Banning State Park. The river trail followed the ice covered stream and led us to rapidly flowing water gurgling in the icy openings. The sun shone down and I could feel its glow on my face, its warmth radiating down to my fingertips. There was no reason to hurry, it was enough just to be outside and moving, in the company of family, conversation flowing up and down the line. With a trunk load of firewood, we soon had a roaring campfire in the picnic grounds and warmed our innards with hot chocolate and s’mores. Lingering until the sun was low in the sky.

Rich Molly Erik Katie at Banning State Park
Erik Katie Rich hiking at Banning
Erik by Kettle River at Banning
Rich Molly Erik campfire at Banning

The icy snow on the ski trails was rejuvenated by a slow gentle snowfall and lured me back out on my skis for the first time in two weeks. It was a sweet reunion, gliding over fresh grooming, moving freely without the encumbrance of extra layers, not worrying about losing any fingers or toes. Remembering winter as it should be.

Lester ski trail
Shadow Molly XC trail

The grand finale of this recent surge in outdoor social life was being invited back to the “snow room.” Thanks to the ingenuity of our friends, we have enjoyed a number of pleasant happy hours and light suppers outdoors in front of a fireplace surrounded by snow walls. Protected from the wind and containing the heat of the fire, spacious enough to position our chairs with six feet between couples, we whiled away the hours enjoying the personal contact we took for granted a year ago.

Luikart's snow room
Molly Rich happy hour Luikart's snow room
Jon Beth Rich supper in Luikart's snow room

What a relief to relish the outdoors once again. To resume this strange new normal. To exit the cold snap.

Lessons of a School Marm

It didn’t take any coaxing. I responded to the job opening in a flash.

Needed: One School Marm, to oversee two grade schoolers in distance learning

I was hired on the spot.

The need was in my daughter Karen’s home, when a medical emergency interrupted their carefully planned arrangements. Their oldest two children in grades 3 and 4 were well accustomed to the drill of their remote school room, yet still needed supervision while she and her husband were at work. It wasn’t hard to commit to spending the week with my grandkids.

To date, I had only heard about distance learning from teachers, media and hearsay. This was the first time I engaged with it first-hand. To students Ben and Mya it was all old hat by now, their routine well-honed. They knew their schedules well, they were the ones leading me through their myriad Google-meets, videos, live instruction and breakout sessions. I watched as they unmuted and muted their computers to speak in class, raised their white boards to the screen to show answers to math problems and juggled with classmates on a screen full of faces.

I marveled at how easily they embraced the technology, whipping between tabs, logins, and online resources. Like the kids that they are, they sucked it up easily and took it in stride. On the other side of the screen, I had to marvel at the teachers. How they tailored their lessons to the electronic age, leveraged resources on the web and still managed to engage their students one-on-one by name in the grid of faces in their virtual classroom. My admiration grew for this resourceful set of adults, faced with the unthinkable and rising to occasion, teaching under conditions they never dreamed possible.

When gym time came I followed Ben to the basement, chromebook under his arm, where he set himself up with a jump rope, balls and shopping bags. Shopping bags? Not all students have access to gym equipment or space at home, but one ingenious instructor created workout videos based on doing moves while throwing plastic bags into the air. It required as much dexterity and coordination as any fancy athletic routine, but with less chance of knocking over any lamps.

All kids procrastinate, doodle and play around during the school day. They wouldn’t be kids if they didn’t. Under this new regime, I watched Mya carefully select the colors and font for her text as she composed answers to her reading assignment. I rolled my eyes as she insisted on drawing the question numbers instead of typing them, erasing and redrawing until she got them just right. All that took far longer than actually coming up with her answers. But I had to admire her computer skills.

While the technology is new, the subjects haven’t changed much. I sat with Ben as he worked through the steps of long division, over and over again until he had it down pat. I read poems with Mya and listened to her answers when she was asked to analyze the poems, look for metaphors and similes, and compare their messages. I learned about open vowels, reviewed the use of commas and how to construct a timeline. We read stories together and answered comprehension questions.

Since I was a live-in aid, we found time for extracurricular activities as well. Before school became cooking time, resulting in mounds of mini banana chocolate chip muffins that fueled us through the next two school days. After school, Karen, Ben and I took to the ski trails. Donning headlamps, we skied under the lights and then ventured beyond to ski the quieter, dark unlit trails. It was a welcome release after being in the house all day.

Despite being highly self-sufficient, the kids seemed to thrive on having someone close by as we traveled through each day together. Someone to answer their questions, to help with explanations and just reassure them that they were doing it right. I felt needed and relished the closeness of our days together, our joint mission. Since I live several hours away, it was a rare opportunity to get to know them better.

I never aspired to be a teacher – I knew I didn’t have the right genes for that. But I can be a good old-fashioned School Marm.

Christmas in our Bubble

Social distancing. Face masks. Isolating. Six feet apart. Quarantining. COVID. Words constantly on our lips. Concepts we have learned to live with.

Family. Gathering. Feasting. Sharing. Hugging. Christmas. Words we long to express. Emotions we ache to indulge.

It’s a strange mixture, this new reality. And we all forge our own paths through the unknowns of the pandemic. After months of having to be uber-careful following Rich’s surgery, we sought relief. We launched a plan well in advance to add our daughter, Karen, her husband Matt and their four children to our bubble to spend Christmas together. As the day approached and everyone remained isolated and healthy, we welcomed them into our house and our arms for four wonderful days of normalcy.

We had no problem sequestering ourselves as a blizzard raged outside. We easily distanced ourselves while sledding down through the swirling snow, kids disappearing from sight in the raging wind and swirling snowflakes. Laughter reigned among bumpy rides and grueling walks to the top of the hill. We were alone in the storm.

Karen and kids sledding in blizzard

Inside we warmed up with hot chocolate, played games, read books and watched a Christmas movie. Squeezing into the tiny TV room, we attended our Christmas Eve church service on the big screen. There was no nursery for the little ones, but their antics didn’t seem to bother the other worshippers. And we didn’t have to wear masks.

Santa’s visit seemed a safe bet. As long as the kids stayed in bed, he was guaranteed a safe social distance. So preparations commenced per usual. A note, cookies for Santa and a carrot for each reindeer were prepared. And the kids skedaddled off to their room.

Mya writing to Santa
Kennedy Kids ready for Santa

Christmas morning began at the stroke of 6:00am. I heard little voices, and poked my head out to find the kids, lying in wait for me! I’m not sure who was more surprised!

Christmas morning surprise

Through the child-induced pandemonium of tearing through wrappings, squeals of delight and the inevitable squabbles, the quintessential Christmas unfolded. Pandemic or not. It was the most normal I’ve felt in months. The best Christmas present ever.

When things quieted down, grandson Ben begged to try cross-country skiing despite the below zero temperatures. Bundling up, he and I shared my two sets of classic skis and boots, and we fudged on the poles to set out on the trails. We easily remained six feet away from the other skiers, trading Christmas greetings as Ben took off like a pro.

Molly and Ben skiing
Ben skiing for the first time

Circling the table laden with food, we said grace, asked God’s help for those struggling with COVID, and gave thanks for all that we have – particularly one another. Gathered together. Within hugging distance. The biggest blessing of all.

Christmas Dinner 2020

We connected with other family members through FaceTime, Zoom and the good old cell phone. Safely distanced, but close in our hearts. I sincerely hope that this is the last time that being together for Christmas – or any day – is unusual.

Christmas with the Kennedys

Turkey for Two

All the stars were aligned. It was our turn to have our kids for Thanksgiving. Our daughter-in-law got the Friday after Thanksgiving off work, never a given for a doctor. The weather cooperated, no slick roads. Everything pointed to a family holiday. And then it didn’t.

As the COVID numbers raged higher and higher, we set our sights lower and lower. A big family gathering was no longer advised. The governor clamped down on the state, and we downsized to communing with just one family. And in the end, in the interest of protecting Rich’s post-operative health, we scaled back to the recommended single household. Ours.

It’s not the first time we haven’t gathered with our kids and their families. We’ve had off years, when all of them were dining with the in-laws. It happens, it’s only fair. But we always filled the void by getting together with friends – other childless parents. We had a fine time sharing the task of preparing all the traditional dishes and feasting shamelessly. I admit, Thanksgiving to me involves a crowded table – both the overabundance of food choices and the number of occupants surrounding it. They don’t have to be related to me.

We couldn’t share a table with others this year, but it didn’t mean we had to tough it out on our own. We still had the outdoors at our disposal, and made the most of it. Living across from the Lester-Amity trails, we invited friends to join us for a hike in the woods. The snow-covered trails lent a wintry feel, and we meandered happily among the pines as our boots crunched over the path. Respecting distances but in friendly proximity, my spirits lifted with the camaraderie.

Hiking with Luikarts
Thanksgiving day hike with Luikarts

Minnesotans that we are, we capped the afternoon with a visit out on the deck. Adirondack chairs fully separated, blankets at the ready and a touch of wine to celebrate.

Luikarts on our deck
Molly and Rich on our deck

A hastily arranged family Zoom call brought us all together virtually. Just seeing all their smiling faces brightened my day, and the inevitable chaos of trying to talk to 14 people at once regenerated that spirit of a family gathering. All three of our offspring were cocooned at home with just their spouses and children. We were hardly in this alone.

Everyone was making the most of a strange year. Karen and Matt were making home-made pizzas with their four children. Carl and Chelsea were serving up roast beef with the usual turkey trimmings for their two kids. Erik and Katie, both nursing colds, were basking in the pleasure of a turkey dinner being delivered by Katie’s mom. Not one us of was doing what we thought we’d be doing just a week or so ago.

Our 3-year-old granddaughter urged everyone to get their “ouchies” (vaccinations) soon so we could all be together again. Amen to that.

Although Rich offered to barbecue steak and salmon – our individual favorites – to spare me the work of a Thanksgiving dinner, I declined. We were on our own, but I still wanted that turkey smell. I still craved the side dishes. I really wanted the leftovers for Thanksgiving dinner revisited and turkey sandwiches.

By feeding only ourselves, the stress and drama of the turkey dinner evaporated. A turkey breast roasted in the oven and I puttered over the remaining trimmings. There were no table leaves to add, no large serving dishes to unearth from the pantry. We still laid out our wedding china and put the gravy in my mom’s silver gravy boat. I didn’t miss the last minute panic of getting everything done at once – when it was ready, we sat down to eat.

Molly on Thanksgiving
Rich on Thanksgiving

Candles glowed, as they do every night on our table, and we gave thanks for our many blessings. This year most of all we were thankful for our health, and for the medical teams that discovered and treated Rich’s heart condition. For bringing him back home to recover.

It was a quiet dinner and we did our best to linger, to draw it out and savor the occasion. It tasted like Thanksgiving even if it didn’t feel like it. Turkey for two. I hope this is the last time we do this.

Safe Celebrations

It was a Baptism unlike all others. Planned for Easter Sunday, our grandson was to be baptized with both Carl and Chelsea’s families in full attendance. But it was quickly derailed by the arrival of COVID-19. As the months went by, the likelihood of gathering continued to dwindle, and baby Crosby quickly outgrew the heirloom gown he was going to wear (handmade for my dad 106 years ago). With his first birthday rapidly advancing, new plans were laid. And then re-planned with the ever-changing landscape of COVID.

Careful precautionary measures were put in place. The ceremony would take place outdoors, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Chelsea’s family would arrive a few days beforehand and celebrate the birthday and baptism together. Our family would stay afterwards, for a second round of festivities. We would only meet at the baptism, separated by distance and masks.

It all sounded as safe as possible, combined with staying in an AirBnB where we could retreat to our own space. But soon even those arrangements increased in risk. Rich’s recent open heart surgery put him in a new class of vulnerability. In his weakened condition, was it wise to drive to Milwaukee, where the COVID rates were far higher than home? Should we be gathering with family, even at a distance?

I didn’t want to face the decision. Forging ahead, I poured my heart into creating a new baptismal gown for Crosby. I chose sturdier (and warmer) wedding gown satin in place of Dad’s delicate fabric. Replicating the inset lace took some googling for instructions, but I relished recreating the slanted lace decoration on the skirt, then added it to the sleeves for good measure. Sewing fed my soul and was a welcome diversion from coronary woes.

Dad’s baptismal gown
Crosby’s new gown

As the date approached, so did apprehension, but holding it at bay in favor of family unity we made the journey. As if to smile with favor on the plans, God delivered a beautiful morning for the baptism – brisk November air with deep blue skies mirrored in Lake Michigan’s waters, sunshine radiating limited warmth and infinite light.

Crosby's Baptismal day

Well bundled to ward off the chill and masked against COVID, the baptism proceeded. No church would have been more sacred. No ceremony more holy. No congregation more thankful to be present. We all bore witness to God’s love and acceptance.

Crosby baptism 1
Crosby baptism 2
Maren with baptismal candle
Carl Chelsea and family after baptism

The ceremony complete, we moved to Carl and Chelsea’s front yard where the sun lingered and so did we. It lasted long enough to savor the morning and its significance among those we love.

Soon afterward, the weather turned windy, wet and stormy as if to close the chapter on the baptism. Rich and I retreated to the seclusion of our AirBnB, where he rested and remained segregated from the rest of the clan. But as the afternoon waned, I returned briefly for one more occasion – Crosby’s first birthday. Documented with pictures and a full report for Rich.

Chelsea and Crosby with birthday decorations
Crosby and birthday cake

We have all been inspired to inventiveness throughout this year of COVID. It’s not over yet, and we will continue to be challenged to find ways to celebrate yet remain safe. Surely this was one for the family history books.

Coming Half Circle

The infant days of COVID-19 seem so long long ago. Back in those early times, it all seemed so strange. So disruptive. So confining. And lonely. In lieu of a social life, I took to the outdoors. By mid-afternoon each day I needed to flee the house, and began walking Seven Bridges Road. What a boon it was to have the city extend the road closing, to have a safe place to walk just outside my door. To climb that hill time and time again, and venture over to Hawk Ridge to look down on Lakeside. Quiet, traffic-less, sheltered neighborhoods. Shuttered by the virus.

Seven Bridges Road April 2020

I watched the leaves come out, the grass come to life, the roadside don its cloak of spring green finery. And still I traveled through a foreign world. The road reopened, and I joined the cyclists grinding up those same hills. My wheels took me further afield, granting a longer and more vigorous escape. I retraced old routes, invented new ones and flew down newly surfaced roads that felt like butter under my spinning tires. It felt almost normal. But I couldn’t out pedal the grip of the virus.

In summer, lively voices accompanied my wanderings. Amity Creek was teeming with life as teens and families alike were drawn to its swimming holes and surrounding woods in greater numbers than usual. “Hammockers” inhabited the trees. Thrill seekers jumped from high cliffs. Kids played hide and seek in the bushes. Picnickers ate by the stream. All eager to forget. Not exactly social distancing. We all needed a way to cope.

Fall’s colors painted over my world, brightening my days with radiance. Every day brought a new landscape, each set of changing leaves outperforming the last. Enticing me out to walk my route before they faded. Those hikes were habit by then. Seeking beauty in a world inhabited by ugly germs.

Hawk Ridge fall view

The falling leaves now signal the waning warmth in our days. Days which have already grown too short for my taste, darkness closing in on both sides. Gone are the evenings we could sit on opposite ends of the deck with friends, to relish seeing them in person. To satisfy that craving for live company. In ways we are allowed in the midst of the virus.

I feel winter lurking at the door, ready to scale down my social opportunities. To limit my face to face contact to that contingent of friends that embraces snow, skis, snowshoes and bundled up walks. To challenge my creativity and strengthen my tolerance for Zoom. All in the name of staying safe.

I don’t know what I expected when the first shut-down order came. I wasn’t naive enough to think it was only a matter of weeks. But I didn’t fully grasp the long-term nature of this confinement. Yet here we are. My walks up Seven Bridges Road tell me we have come half circle. I now have no doubt we will complete this circuit, and then some. Until the virus releases its hold on our lives.

Seven Bridges Road October 2020