Nuclear Families, Time To Move, And Less Of Everything

I started this letter on March 4 and just reopened it again. The original letter began:

“Yesterday was an election day. I woke up early to go stand in front of the elementary school with some other parents and wave signs that read Yes on Measure I (a local school funding initiative). Everyone was in high spirits. We were preaching to the choir, of course, and that’s the most fun kind of preaching. Parents honked and waved as they drove by and shouted ‘I voted!’ out of their passenger windows. I ran in this election too, for a small local office (Los Angeles Central Committee Delegate for Assembly District 43, for those keeping track) and lots of people shouted, ‘I voted for you, Summer! I told all my friends!’

“After the sign-waving, I went inside the school for an emergency PTA Executive Board meeting (not actually an emergency, they use that term pretty liberally) and more people told me they voted for me. A few people gave me hugs. Then I took Margaret to the YMCA so I could work out and everyone there had voted for me, too, and the YMCA was also a voting center so I watched people file in and out of the glass-walled cardio room and the two women that run the YMCA’s childcare room gushed over Margaret and how much she had grown even though they saw her last only a week ago.

“It was such a nice day and it made me sad because I knew I’d be leaving. The night before Election Day our offer had been accepted on a house in Pasadena. For those who don’t know, our new house will be about six miles east of our current one, and while I know it’s more than a little ridiculous to make a fuss over moving six miles, residents of big cities know how much of a difference six miles can make. Many of the things we love about our house now are not only in our neighborhood but on our block: not only the YMCA, but the corner liquor store with their extremely optimistic Instagram account and the corner grocery store that saved our dinner by stocking chicken broth on Christmas Day (we brought the grocery store owner a thank you present a few days later).”

I was going to talk a bit more about moving and about community, when everything about our community changed very abruptly.

Usually I am, to put it mildly, very busy.

The kids go to guitar and piano and baseball and hip hop dance and fine arts and chess club and talent show rehearsals and baby music time and Girl Scouts and Junior Audubon Society and student government and Beatrice just started an environmental activism group at her school called SOS (Students for Sustainability). I’m on the PTA Executive Board and I’m the Team Mom for baseball, which means I organize the snacks and the schedule and every week I go down to the Parks and Rec office to reserve practice fields, which for some reason can only be done in person on Thursday mornings at 9am. I meet with students and clients. I go door to door spreading the good news about Bernie Sanders. I go to monthly meetings at the Los Angeles Mycological Society. I go to spinning classes and author readings and book club and birthday drinks and bar trivia every Monday evening.

Now I don’t go anywhere.

In the morning, Zac gets the baby up and makes breakfast. Then Zac watches the kids and I work until lunch. He takes all the kids on a long walk to burn off some energy, then helps the older kids do their online school assignments and plays with the baby. We all have lunch together. After lunch, Zac works and I watch the kids. While the baby naps, I do crafts and activities with the older kids. After the baby gets up, I let the older kids have some screen time while I play with her. Then we all have dinner, play a board game or work on a puzzle, and the kids go to bed. Then Zac and I read or pack or watch bits of Ken Burns Baseball until we go to bed.

I have so much more time. I used to spend about an hour a day just dropping the kids off and picking them up from school. Maybe 15 minutes packing their lunches. Another 15 going through their backpacks. An hour of library store time. An hour at the gym. It adds up and up.

My reaction to social distancing has been a desire to isolate myself even further. I stopped using Twitter. I almost never go online anymore except for work. With so little to do, the few calls and online meetings I have left loom larger. I have so much free time and I want still more free time, I can’t seem to get enough of it.

I used to spend 3.5 hours every Wednesday afternoon taking Beatrice to and from therapy appointments she now does online from her bedroom. The first three weeks I was elated every Wednesday afternoon, bursting with all the time I had regained. This week I find myself resenting the five minutes it takes to set up a laptop in B’s bedroom and sign her into Zoom. Five minutes?! That’s pretty much my entire afternoon ruined.

It’s not that I don’t miss these things. I miss many of them terribly. Perhaps it’s just that I like novelty, and now the endless novelty of new events and obligations has been replaced by the novelty of not doing anything at all.

This distancing is only a more extreme form of the kind that always accompanies moving. Even before coronavirus, we’d begun to pull away. I started resigning from clubs and volunteer positions. We cancelled our membership at the Y. We went out less. (We’d joked that because our new house is such a significant renovation project — and because we’d spent so much money to buy it — soon we’d never leave home again.) Mentally, too, I withdrew. Instead of going out to literary events in the city, I’d spend the evening on my computer, searching “how to install shower walls.” The money I saved not going out I spent on garden seeds and curtains for the boys’ new bedroom. Now, while no one can go outside, I spend all my time deeper inside the closets, sorting and shifting, deciding what gets left behind.

I’ve lived in almost thirty different places. At forty, that means I’ve moved an average of once every 17 months. Recently I tried to list every place I’d lived and later realized I’d forgotten the time we lived in Buena Park, near Knott’s Berry Farm. I have one memory of that apartment now, a metal mailbox at the base of some concrete stairs, and in the background, the tidal winding and unwinding of rollercoasters.

I love moving. For one thing, I am very good at it (I should be, at this point). As soon as it’s decided that a move will take place, a switch is thrown in my brain and I turn all my intelligence and attention to the problems of moving. The last time you moved, did you remember to update your pets’ microchips? I did. Did you forward your magazines, order a new dog tag, attach a plastic bag with assembly instructions and hardware to your disassembled furniture pieces with painter’s tape? I’ve done all of that already. Already done.

But as a kid the main reason I loved moving was that it made me feel more connected to my family, which I defined to be roughly, “the people that move with you.” Moving often meant leaving my neighbors, teachers, and friends, but my family I never left behind. The problems of the nuclear family are many and serious, but still I admit I find it calming now, to look around our little house and see everyone together, all of our time. In that other life I fretted over the kids whenever I wasn’t with them. I missed Zac when he’d go to work. Now Zac goes to the grocery store once every two weeks and all the time he’s gone I keep peering out the kitchen windows, wondering when he’ll come back.

Now my whole world has shrunk, dramatically and suddenly, to just Zac and the kids. We’ve left our community twice, once through moving and once through quarantine. When we emerge from this time, we’ll be somewhere else entirely, among new people emerging too, all of us blinking into the glare of a new whole life.

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