We find three picnic tables at the park pulled together in a row. That means that when our son shows up for dinner we can space ourselves far apart, the new calculus of every encounter.
It took us a while, really a long while, to drop the comfort of temporariness that was part of the early days of the pandemic. Thinking we only had to hunker down for a few weeks or months seemed a small price to pay to avoid getting sick. So that’s what we did. My husband and I and our two retired sled dogs, Swirl and Punchy, created our bubble. And we ate and slept and watched the world from our bubble – our house, our two porches, and the dog park.
There were no kids in our bubble. When I had kids at home, I would have been glad for the reprieve, but as an older person, not seeing my adult kids began to seem weird, abandoning.
“Don’t you guys miss me?” I’d think. I never actually asked, of course. That would be too needy. But I wondered if they missed having dinner, somebody always late, too many chairs crammed around our dining room table, there being too much or not enough of something, or if they were, themselves, glad for the reprieve.
Truth be told, they never seemed to miss me. But I missed them. Getting them all in one place didn’t work, so we began to pick them off one by one.
I make barbecued chicken, potato salad, and baked beans for our dinner at the park. I use three of the containers left over from preparing meals for homeless people last year, putting each food in its own compartment and topping it all off with a plastic wrapped fork, knife, salt and pepper. It makes me feel good to do this, efficient and competent like when I used to make meals for sixty homeless people except we’re not homeless. I don’t know what we are. It’a okay. I can adapt, I thought. This is the new reality. No dining room table. Styrofoam.
We wait at the picnic table while a 20-mile an hour wind blows, the pulleys on the sailboats at the nearby marina clanking on the masts, the sun still blazing but the air cooling fast. This is what it’s come to, I thought, we’re meeting our son at a picnic table in a park like someone selling a bike on eBay. He texts that he is running late. It is like dinners at our house in years past, always someone trailing in when we were serving dessert.
Then he appears. It looks as if he went home after work to shower and change and I appreciate the thought even though he is a half hour late. We talk about his job managing a fitness center and I worry out loud about whether people are wearing masks and when he says no, not everyone, I slide further away from him on the picnic bench, feeling with my hand behind my back where the end of the bench is so I don’t fall off. It’s as if I can’t get far enough away from him, my own boy. I know he sees this but he says nothing.
We talk about other things and we laugh. Our dogs wander under the table in a hopeful effort to find scraps. We feel the wind and the sun and remember the boat we used to have. We talk about the other kids and how they are doing. We talk about his cat.
We toss our dinner containers in the trash. Our son walks off toward the bridge that will lead up to the street where he lives. On his arm is a plastic bag with a container of potato salad for later. It was always his favorite dish. When we drive away, we see him many yards away and we honk the horn and wave. He waves back. This is what it’s come to. This is what we have. And I am glad for it.