My little grandson is looking up, so I look up, too, shading my face with my right hand, maintaining a firm hold on his wriggling body with my left arm. All I can see is a yellow blur, far off in the distance — a blimp, perhaps, gliding over the Cascades — but from where we stand on the dock, Tommy is very sure it’s a truck up there in the bright blue sky, playing hide-and-seek with the clouds.
“Uck!” he says a third time, his smile reaching straight to my heart.
Babies have a special kind of x-ray vision. They can detect movement half a block away, or spy a ladybug on top of a leaf at 10 paces. Sixty-three-year-olds like me have presbyopia, or “elder eyes,” a particular form of farsightedness that has me trying bifocals, unsuccessfully, as they give me an immediate headache every time I put them on.
“Wow,” I said to the ophthalmologist when he diagnosed me in 2019, the year before the pandemic. “Presbyopia, huh?” I added, as if all those years I went to the Presbyterian church might have been the culprit.
I ventured a little giggle, to see if he got my joke.
“Yep,” he said, deadpan, and handed me my prescription. “Happens to the best of us.”
Tommy stabs at the air with adorable, chubby fingers. “Uck!” His eight-month-old torso goes rigid with excitement, then relaxes, vibrating in my embrace. The main dock at our marina sways slightly, as it does in spring and summer when fishing boats crowd the river, making wide, undulating wakes. Together we navigate the wooden expanse above the water, barely six feet wide, and I feel nervous until we make it to the threshold of our floating home, four docks down on B row.
“That sure was a nice truck,” I say to Tommy as I deliver him safely inside the door. He grins a two-tooth grin, so beguilingly sweet I want to weep. The days of rearing my own children are long over. My task now is to feel my way through the intricacies of this new, long-awaited role of grandmother. No one means for it to be tricky, exactly, and it really isn’t, as long as you cover the basics: feed them, clean them, make sure they rest, keep them safe. That’s the four-way test of a competent grandparent. And a corollary, for good measure: Have fun with them, every time.
Tommy isn’t walking yet. When he is, it won’t be OK for him to be out on the docks if he isn’t wearing a life jacket. In the future, when he is fully ambulatory, he must wear a life jacket and hold Gramma’s hand. That will be the rule. Always, the jacket. Always, my hand. For him, but also for me.
When Tommy’s parents decide it’s safe enough, their son comes back to the Multnomah Channel to visit. The first time he meets my friend Carol, who lives three docks away from us, he bursts into tears.
“I must’ve scared him,” says Carol, who is as lovely and pleasant as a summer day is long. She looks concerned, and a little sad, but she makes light of it anyway.
“He doesn’t like my face,” she says. She wears white walking shoes and a coral-lipstick smile.
It is 2020, and Tommy has morphed from a floppy newborn into a solid baby. We are all afraid of the deadly new virus that’s racing around the globe like wildfire. Ensconced in what-will-happen-next seclusion at home, unaware of the whiplashy changes we’re all muddling through, he doesn’t see anyone outside his very small and vigilant circle.
“You know, COVID,” I say to Carol on the day he cries, by way of explanation. “He’s been isolating since he was four months old.”
She understands. She has two granddaughters she sees sometimes, on Zoom or waving through sliding glass doors. This explanation makes her feel better about the tears.
It used to be Thursdays when my husband and I watched Tommy, but now it’s Fridays. His mama’s job has gotten more demanding, and his daddy runs his own business. There were choices to be made.
We were fastidious well into autumn, when the pandemic was still peaking, masking up and washing hands and monitoring ourselves for symptoms. We tried new recipes. We read a lot. We listened to Fauci. We followed the rules. We didn’t travel or get together with family for the holidays. Instead, we FaceTimed and hung out on Google.
By spring 2021, the case numbers are down. We’re fully vaxxed, but we’re still cautious. We wear masks when we shop for food, and inside the bank and the pet store and the post office. We feel a little guilty about it, but we don’t eat in restaurants that survived the Great Pause. Outside dining, good. Inside, not so much.
On the river, we let each other know when we’re heading to the store.
We text: “I’m going to Freddy’s. Need anything?” We look out for each other, especially the older ones and the ones who live alone. We buy toothpaste and yogurt and green tea — not our brands, but theirs.
Tommy is 20 months old, louder and much more socialized. He goes to daycare, and sometimes his other grandparents’ houses. He calls his quiet black dog by her name, “Ee-ya,” for Layla. We bring him to the river and he looks for ducks in the water.
He walks and runs. Trucks are trucks, and airplanes are airplanes.
“Ma-Cooties,” he says, for McCuddy’s Landing, the marina where we live. We say “down, down, down” as we descend the ramp from the parking lot hand in hand, watching for wildlife. Once we saw a beaver and another time we saw a family of raccoons. There are always gray herons.
When our friend Dawn is outside watering her plants, Tommy says something funny — “’Sup, dude!” or “Hi lady!” — and she laughs and laughs. Dawn likes little kids, is amused by their antics. She pays attention to Tommy and he laps it up, as young ones do. She gets as good as she gives.
One day when it’s hot, all of us have Fudgsicles, me and Gramps and Tommy and Dawn. We sit in folding chairs outside on B dock, ours chairs big, Tommy’s small, mine right next to his. The life vest is secure around him. He swings his cherubic legs. At the ends of them are small blue Nike sandals, their white swooshes blurry in all the up-and-down. Gramps smears chocolatey lips on his face with his Fudgsicle and waits for Tommy to notice, dum-de-dum-dum, but he’s distracted by a yellowjacket buzzing around the azaleas, part of a container-garden display tended by our neighbor. Tommy’s treat is melting, but never mind, we say, we can hose the drips off the dock. After a minute, he sees Gramps’s face. He throws his head back and chortles. We say “one, two, three” to get him to finish, then haul him into the house and give him a bath. We can’t return him to his parents all sticky.
“Boat goes FAST!” he declares, pushing a yellow-and-blue toy skiff through the tub water. He makes a running-motor sound that’s pretty close to the real thing.
“Where’s Grimps?” he wants to know, a second later. He calls Gregg “Grimps” instead of “Gramps,” which is ironic, what with the pending hip replacement and the bad knee. Grimps has gone into the wood shop at the back of the house to check the glue on a bookcase he’s building.
“He’s in his shop,” I tell Tommy. “He’ll be back.” It is not good enough.
“I … want … Grimps,” Tommy pouts, and slaps the water with his forearm, the rubber boat tight in his fist. Then louder, and more insistent: “I … WANT … GRIMPS!”
Bathtime’s over. I gather him up in a big towel, rub his fine, damp hair, kiss the side of his not-sticky face.
“I love you,” I whisper into his pink conch-shell ear, dab it with the towel. He strains to get loose and dashes toward the stairs in the buff. I drop the towel and follow him, not bothering to open the drain. He must not fall down the stairs on my watch. Grandparent code won’t allow it.
“Wait up, mister!” I call after him, but he is already two steps up, laughing like crazy, his bare bottom bobbing.
Toddlers are very certain about what they want and don’t want, and when. They have not yet learned how to equivocate.
When you live on the river, you commit to the community with your eyes wide open. If you’re not a fan of running into people on the docks and visiting with them, the lifestyle is not for you.
It was different during COVID. We were wary of interacting. We did what the doctors and scientists said. We kept to ourselves so we wouldn’t catch the coronavirus. On the head dock, we gave our fellow river rats a wide berth and spoke far fewer words than usual through our face coverings. We didn’t gather for cocktail hour or cookouts. It was hard on the extroverts. It was hard on everyone.
During the months we didn’t take care of Tommy, I worried he wouldn’t remember me. Out of sight, out of mind kept running through my head. The solution to my Gramma-anxiety was to take drives over to my daughter and son-in-law’s house in Southeast Portland. “We’re here,” I’d text, and they would bring the baby outside on their front stoop for a few minutes so we could see him, from 10 feet away. It was excruciating not to hold him, but it was for the best. We all knew that.
“Baby-gawking,” we called our weekly sojourns, making things cheerful, keeping it real. I’d stand out on their lawn, singing silly songs with exaggerated hand motions, for Tommy’s sake. For mine.
Down by the station, early in the morning, see the little Pufferbellies all in a row …
I always waited for him to smile, so I could be sure he remembered.
The week of the summer solstice, a year and a half after the start of quarantine, Tommy’s parents eat at a food cart one neighborhood over from theirs. They sit near other families whose members smile shyly, hunched over their tamales and rice-and-bean bowls, unsure of emerging protocols. They are out in the world, but not yet of it again, so they tread lightly, staying mostly to themselves.
The following Friday, during lunchtime at the marina, Tommy sits in his big-boy high chair and squeezes a slice of green pepper between his thumb and forefinger. He lifts it up, as if making a toast.
“Jalapeño!” he says, to my back. I’m slicing bananas on a cutting board. I whirl around, drop the paring knife into the sink with a clatter. Tommy’s face is sunbeam-bright. The kid loves getting a rise out of Gramma.
I phone my daughter. “How does he know that word?” I marvel. “That’s four whole syllables!” I can feel her smile over my 4G. The report of her son’s precociousness makes her day.
Tommy is going on two now, and in full-on toddler mode. He rushes about and shrieks, living out loud whatever mood is upon him, no holds barred. He has little time for diaper changes. He has all the time in the world to retrieve smooth rocks from our outdoor water fountain and toss them back in, the splashes soaking his shirt. He will stay on the back deck, if we let him, until he’s so wet he’s shivering.
What he knows of life is vast and imperfect, the way it ought to be. The simple things are the most familiar: his daddy’s strong arms when he hoists Tommy onto his shoulders. The soft, warm comfort of his mama’s breast when she nurses him back to sleep in the night.
And yet. He doesn’t understand how dangerous it is to climb stairs without the ability to safely descend. He doesn’t see it hurts Gramma’s back when he flings his 23-pound body suddenly downward, wanting to “fly” just one more time before he goes home.
He isn’t aware of the efforts others around him are making to get on with the new normal, the practically-past-COVID normal, as changed people weighing the merits and demerits of their recent journey through the valley of the shadow of death.
When my kids’ dad and I divorced back in 2000, I was informed by more than one person that our children would be ruined.
“They’re unmoored,” an older relative told me through knitted eyebrows, and I could not argue with her.
A minister who had not paid attention to me at all before my marriage fell apart sat in my living room and issued a more ominous prediction. “This will scar them for life,” she declared, stirring sugar into the cup of coffee in her lap, her mouth twisted into a tight, unsmiling bow.
Twenty years on, I can say that my kids are all right, that rack and ruin wasn’t what happened. Their lives changed, abruptly and lastingly. They’re different than they would have been if their parents had stayed together, but also because we did, for quite a long time, before that final torturous parting.
All three of them are now in their 30s. Twenty years ago they experienced bewilderment and disappointment over a domestic situation they didn’t ask for and couldn’t control, and sorrow over the broken promise of what might have been. They also experienced people, places, and things they wouldn’t have if they’d remained cocooned inside the life their father and I fashioned for them in their formative years, a life of protection and indulgence, a life of what we thought was best.
Tommy’s life is different, too, because of COVID, because of the wrench it threw into his family’s existential plans. He isn’t conscious of those big adaptations yet. We shall see what we shall see.
Tommy turns two the week the autumn leaves turn their most brilliant yellow and orange and red. He seems not to recall his necessary quarantine, his time away from the marina. He squeals at the sight of a heron taking flight, its wingspan wide and majestic. He says, “I holding your hand, Gramma” as he waddles along on the dock in his life jacket, which covers two-thirds of him in protective foam. He pets our golden retriever Bernie on the head a little too hard and dodges his wagging tail, lest it knock him over.
He remembers. Me, and all the rest.
“Time to sleep,” I sing-song, and Tommy clambers up and onto my lap, flannel blanket in tow.
“Baby movie,” he counters, eyes red-rimmed, body tired from a busy morning of play.
“You want to watch Ezzy?” My younger daughter has been sending me videos of our newest grandson, who lives in Colorado. Ezra is nine months old, born in the water at home in October 2020, at the height of the pandemic. His parents are bringing him to Oregon soon, to meet his aunties, uncles, and cousins. And his great-grandpa, who’s almost 91. Ezra, too, is emerging from his pandemic bubble, a bubble he hasn’t known he was in.
Tommy nods, definitively, just once.
I show him the one of Ez playing peek-a-boo, the one where he rolls over from his back to his stomach, and the one of him banging colorful wooden blocks together, made by the students in his teacher-mama’s eighth grade class. Like the Dick and Jane books of my youth, read to me by the great-grandmother the boys never knew, the movies soothe and mesmerize him. After five or six videos he goes down for his nap, the port-a-crib a cozy vehicle for his magical progress along the continuum from baby to boy.
It occurs to me that in two short years, whatever those years may bring, his parents will be enrolling him in preschool. It occurs to me that he is practically ready now.
After two weeks of blazing sun and a killer heat wave — perturbingly rare for the Pacific Northwest, even at summer’s apex — it’s cooler today, and drizzling. Tommy’s mama calls and lets me know he didn’t go to daycare. Some sort of SNAFU with the provider’s teenager, who’s away at camp. Mother and son are on a walk, filling the gap between work obligations and the sort of stimulation an active toddler needs, birdsong and breezes and the barking of neighborhood dogs. I can hear the crunch of gravel beneath the rolling tires of the jogging stroller, and the questions in my daughter’s voice as she considers how best to care for her little boy on weekdays, when the responsibilities of her career in healthcare management monopolize most of her hours.
“Maybe we should look into a childcare center,” she says, tossing the words out like breadcrumbs, picking them back up, tucking them into her pocket, unconvinced. “They’d have a Plan B when a caregiver’s out.” She waits for my reaction, as if I have wisdom she lacks.
It’s the money, it’s the place, it’s what’s right for Tommy. It’s exhausting.
They’re at the park. I can hear Tommy squealing, the clank-and-stop of the teeter-totter, other children’s teases and shouts. You’ll figure out what to do, I say to my daughter, wanting to help. She’ll find her way, like I did all those years ago, when she flew high in the swing and I did underdogs to make her laugh. When I applied cartoon-character Band-Aids to her bloodied knees. When I went down the tall slide with her so she wouldn’t be afraid.
A muffled rumbling rises from my phone.
“Gaga!” Tommy yells, and then, predictably, “Where’s Grimps?”
I’m Gaga now. I have a name. All the way across town, he’s thinking of me, of us. In his mind that flits like a hummingbird’s. In his heart, where we abide.
What came during COVID — the hand-wringing and baby gawking and crazy lucky unshakable love — all of it, the whole thing, mattered.
Nancy Townsley is a longtime community newspaper journalist whose work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, The Big Smoke, NAILED Magazine, Elephant Journal, and Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (2012, Forest Avenue Press). Her essay “Halfway Out” appears in *2020: The Year of the Asterisk (October 2021, University of Hell Press). Her novel-in-progress, Sunshine Girl, is a contemporary story about a journalist-turned-activist in a time of devalued news.