Bringing small children to stay with grandparents during the pandemic was terrifying to start with, dangerous throughout and then heart wrenching when it ended. God knows how we managed it, but we are all thanking our lucky stars we got away with it. It will always feel like our ‘stolen summer’. To try and reduce the spread of any germs we’d brought with us, our rule of thumb was simple. For the first 10 days, we’d pretend we had Covid, then for the next 10, we’d ‘bubble up’ with Mum and Dad and pretend everyone else had it. Gulp. Was that really going to work?
After a 22-hour journey escaping from Panama, came the reassuring crunch of the gravel as our taxi pulled into to my parents‘ driveway. They welcomed us from the safe distance of their balcony, while the kids raced in through the back of the house. My plan had been to strip us all off before entering. But, between unloading the suitcases, and the kids‘ desperation to be reunited with old toys and just not be traveling anymore, that just didn’t happen. First fail! I couldn’t afford any more. Quarantining with 3 kids at my parents‘ house for 2 weeks was going to be tricky. Not least because I desperately wanted to hug them both!
We did then strip off and shower, putting everything, including my handbag and all our shoes in the washing machine. I wiped down anything we‘d already touched downstairs (which was everything) with disinfectant. The children did a lot of shouting and running around in the garden. As I sat in my mum‘s garden in the gentle English afternoon sunshine, reeling slightly with shock.
Inside the house, Mum had barricaded the downstairs hallway with a chest of drawers. We were going to stay entirely separate from them for 10 days. That evening, the first of many delicious meals miraculously appeared on the barricade, brought to us by the glorious ‘Supper Fairy‘.
She would descend regally at 6pm everyday on her stair master baring a tray of deliciousness. It was a very welcome break for me after preparing every meal in lockdown 3 times a day for 6 months! We all kept well back behind a shut door.
Once she’d arisen to the safety of upstairs, we‘d retrieve the feast and enjoy every home-cooked morsel. After the kids literally licked the plates clean, I‘d meticulously wash everything up. Then feeling like a germy criminal, I‘d erase my fingerprints with wipes, then leave the plates back on the barricades for her to retrieve later. A crazy system, but it worked!
After a few days of just loving the springy English grass, the cold rain, the fresh summer air, we were ready to sneak down to the beach. First, I went to check (literally) the coast was clear. No passersby in the street, no one on our patch of beach. I came back to get the kids and we made a run for it, straight across the road and down to the sea. I cannot describe just how heavenly the cold clear water felt after so many months of confinement in Panama’s sweaty streets. Oh how I’d missed the sea!
After 7 days, we were allowed up the back stairs and INTO THE KITCHEN. It felt like such a privilege to be allowed in. Even for just one meal a day, with all the windows open, Mum and Dad at a safe distance behind another barrier erected to keep the kids back! In the evenings, I stood outside on the balcony, chatting to mum through a nearly shut window loving the long summer evening light and the chilly night air.
Finally, we made it to 10 days! Mum came downstairs to bring us something that morning, meaning to wait until that afternoon for the hug fest to begin, but suddenly she was through the barrier and hugging us all. From then on, there was a lot of kisses and lengthy cuddles, occasionally even involving my Dad!
For me, it was just a huge joy to have another pair of loving arms to help me cuddle my three little people who need so much love. And for Mum and Dad, it was the first touch of another human for months and months. We had made it into their bubble and were all delighted with ourselves.
After two weeks, a very long time for 3 restless kids, we made it to THE PLAYGROUND. And then we went every day! We set off, Dad coming with us, venturing out for the first time in ages on his mobility scooter, my kids on their bikes. Unfit from lockdown lardiness, I ran along behind my wobbly youngest, each day with little less of my hand on her back, while she screamed “DON”T LET GO MUMMY! DON’T YOU DARE EVER LET GO!” I did eventually, though then had to run even faster to keep up.
We‘d spend a couple of hours at the park, my son ostensibly practicing scooting in the skatepark but actually concentrating very hard on acquiring new swear words. One day he told me he’d heard 21. (Presumably, it was the same ones repeated many times, but who knows, the local lads have a pretty rich vernacular particularly when wiping out off their skateboards! I ran round with the girls sloshing about the hand sanitizer, wiping down equipment and trying not to let them get too close to anyone. We had to be super paranoid. Just couldn’t risk bringing any bugs home. The few people we did talk to (distantly) soon took a large step backwards when we heard where we‘d come from. Central America, eh? Er, many cases there then? they‘d ask as they quickly packed up their kids and left.
Every day, I played a game with myself, seeing how far away I could get from the kids while keeping them in sight. This did nearly end in disaster.
One day, I dragged them out into the water at mid-tide on an old windsurfer and tied it to the breakwater. I walked away up the beach to get my phone to take a pic. When I turned around, I saw they’d untied the board and were drifting away in the current! I wasn‘t meaning to send them to France!
Their Panamanian school returned to online classes in September (even as I write this in December, schools have still not reopened here or in most of Latin America for physical classes.) Because of the time difference, classes were 3 to 6pm, break for supper, then 7 to 8.30pm.
When they finished school, I´d take them down the beach howling at the moon and to run around shouting into the night. Sometimes we‘d join ‘the secret night people‘, our lovely neighbours, who often had a welcoming beach fire and a sanity restoring drink for me. We never saw them during the day as they were busy rennovating their house, so the children decided they only came out at night.
Our day was back to front but it worked ok. And it meant we had the playground and beach pretty much to ourselves all day which was perfect considering the circumstances.
Near the end of my trip, it was my mum‘s 79th birthday. Having lived abroad for so many years, it was a real treat to be there to celebrate it with her, and even more so in these uncertain times. She reluctantly agreed to GO OUT FOR LUNCH, a seriously big deal when for anyone of her age, being out and about has been so risky for so long.
It was a perfect seaside day, and my brother and his daughter came to join us in what felt like a lovely sniff of normality. We sat in the garden of her favourite restaurant, The Crab and Lobster, blissed out with sunshine, good wine and no kids. (My very brave Dad was looking after the kids at home. Hopefully not snoozing on the job.)
Finally, our wonderful 4 weeks came to an end. Saying goodbye gets harder every year, with their advancing age and our deepening connection through the kids. With the pandemic making future plans impossible, this year was without doubt the worst. Partly because it had seemed so impossible that we would even get there in the first place!
As our taxi man crunched us out back onto the road to Gatwick, I was swallowing hard behind my mask. Of course, I was excited for the next part of our holidays, to be reunited with my husband after 4 weeks apart, and catch up with our Irish family, but leaving Mum and Dad was just gutting. It had been an amazing, hard earned privilege to be in their bubble by the beach.
And what a beautiful bubble it was.