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Staying Connected to Grandkids During the Pandemic 

click to enlarge Thea Lewis with grandson Andre - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Thea Lewis with grandson Andre

Last April, I saw a news story about a Ventura, Calif., couple who donned plastic trash bags and scuba gear so they could hug their grandchildren. I chuckled.

Like most grandparents during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, I missed in-person contact with my grandchildren. I just hadn't reached the point of donning personal protective equipment that looked like a makeshift Jacques Cousteau costume in order to see them.

Fast-forward 10 months, and I'm feeling all their feels. The pandemic has dragged on for a year, and nearly everyone is craving that human touch. It feels especially poignant not to be able to hold hands or snuggle with a grandchild. While grown-ups may joke that life seems like the movie Groundhog Day, life for little people is still one discovery after another. It's hard not to feel, quite keenly, the milestones we are missing.

My husband and I have seven "grandbabies" ranging in age from 5 months to 21 years. The oldest of the crew is Jonathan, a bona fide adult who lives in another state. We haven't seen him since the virus turned everything upside down, but we get regular reports on his progress from my daughter and his dad. They relay news of his job and the car he's restoring, and I get to be freaked out from a distance by his plans to buy a motorcycle.

Our next two, chronologically, are teens. Zavier, who will be 16 in May, lives about 40 minutes away. Annika, newly 15, is by necessity part of our pandemic "bubble" since I'm the official (masked) afterschool chauffeur for her and her younger brother a few days a week. While neither Zavier nor Annika are prickly by any means, hugging and having someone make a fuss over them are things they both prefer to avoid. Zavier, who would rather be coding than cuddling, rarely checks his texts, so his mom fills me in on major life events.

I try to keep track of Annika's world by asking not-too-nosy questions during our 10-minute car rides — and by sharing unpunctuated text messages, because, according to parenting website Grown and Flown, adding symbols to the ends of sentences like "How are you doing?!" is stress-provoking to modern teens. "Avoid using periods. They make your kids nervous and your meaning unclear," a post on the site states. (Apparently we've reached the end of an era when it comes to the end of a sentence.)

It's been easy and fun to spice up the socially distanced lives of both kids with gift cards or treats, like the baby goat stuffed animal named Patrick I ordered for Annika, who would, of course prefer a real goat but is allergic to most four-legged critters.

Annika's younger brother, 9-year-old Andre, is the grandchild with whom I get to spend the most time. He's a singer who, before the pandemic, was one of the youngest buskers on Burlington's Church Street Marketplace. Around that time, he went through a period of fascination with the show "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and, because I was helping him with his gigs, he began referring to me as his "gramager."

Andre is the reason I've become somewhat proficient in Zoom. Missing our in-person adventures, he would send me regular invitations to meetings so we could laugh, rehearse and talk about the musical Hamilton, since we are both rabid fans. Because Andre is so musically inclined (he has his own home "studio"), it's hard to stop gifting him with different instruments — most recently a kazoo.

When my daughter complained, citing the harmonicas, accordion and bongos I've bought him over the years, I got defensive. "I realized the other day he doesn't have a pennywhistle, but I resisted buying one!" I told her. She responded that if I had, my son-in-law might have considered stuffing me in a duffel to be a justifiable act.

Our two youngest granddaughters, sisters Olivia and Addie — 9 and 4, respectively — live a long drive away. We talk on the phone, and I send them fun, interesting books and toys I would like. You read it right: I would like — or already do. Books like Anne of Green Gables and Peter Pan for Olivia, who is kind, funny and smart, and The Little Engine That Could and Ferdinand the Bull for Addie, a ringleted firecracker with a big imagination. I've sent them a boom box with a CD of dance tunes, head lamps for reading under blanket forts, and beach towels and pillows emblazoned with unicorns. (If you can't experience the childhood you always wanted vicariously through your grandchildren, you might as well melt down your credit card.)

Olivia and Addie's little brother, A.J., is our youngest grandchild. His absence from our lives is especially tough to bear. He was born during the pandemic, so we haven't officially met him yet. We get to see pictures that keep us updated on his progress. We know he's cooing and smiling and that he adores his big sisters, but it's not enough.

Recently, my husband, Roger, and I were watching a trailer for an upcoming movie. In one scene, someone placed a tiny infant in the arms of the main character, who was about my age.

Watching that clip, I could almost feel the heft and warmth of that child. It made the absence of my little bundle seem suddenly unbearable. In that instant, I felt totally bereft. I turned to Roger and burst out, "It's just killing me that we've got a perfectly good baby just a 40-minute drive away and I don't even get to hold him!"

I know this too shall pass, though I don't know when. We've got a vaccine now, and my fingers are crossed that, with its effectiveness and the public's cooperation, we'll return to normal someday soon.

In the meantime, all I can do is what I've been doing: Stay connected with the grandkids any way I can, let them know I still love them — and try to forget that the last time I saw Andre, he mentioned wanting a trombone.

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