We needed Saturday. Cool and sunny, with that particular light that only a spring day can have, it was impossible not to feel our spirits lift. It came at just the right time. We had spent the week beginning our foray into virtual schools. At first, despite the circumstances, it was impossible not to feel excited. Schools were closed!
But it wasn’t long before anxiety began to creep in. Sylvia, in particular, worried how online school would work. Without her teacher guiding her through the lessons, how would she know what to do?
“I’ll be there,” I reassured her. “I’ll help you.” I dubbed our homeschool Mama Witsell’s Academy, and, for a day or two, we had fun imagining all the possibilities of staying home. We could go for hikes and ride bikes, do art projects and learn Spanish. While I made a mental list of all the home projects we could tackle (clean the blinds, organize the craft table, dust the fan blades), Dee Dee wrote down our “specials” schedule: Monday: Art, Tuesday: PE, Wednesday: Dance . . .
But, by the middle of the first day, the snow day excitement of staying home on a school day had already worn off. It turned out the specials teachers had posted their own virtual assignments, and somehow, caught up in the prospect of being home with my kids again, I had forgotten that I had my own job to attend to. After a two-hour Zoom meeting with my colleagues that left me feeling overwhelmed and anxious— how in the world was I going to teach English for three hours a day via videoconferencing to students who struggle to check their email?— designing creative art projects for my kids had completely slipped off the edge of what felt possible. Even our afternoon riding bikes at Biltmore ended in tears, when the handlebars on Sylvia’s new bike came loose and she had to wobble and walk all the way back to the car.
By Friday, we were all feeling a bit demoralized. How could this possibly work? The videos on the kids’ google classrooms weren’t loading. Clayton didn’t have any math assignments. Sylvia was treating her google classroom as her own social media platform (“I’m bored. Is anyone there? Someone please talk to me! Someone? Anyone????”) Don was cussing darkly about not being able to get any work done, while our ancient dog Soca paced the house, neurotically scratching at every door, and I wandered from room to room with my Chromebook, looking for a quiet place to settle for yet another Zoom meeting. All in all, the reality of five people working virtually from home was leaving us all feeling irritable and overwhelmed.
The weekend came at last, as it always does. Chinese take-out and movie night replaced our usual Friday evening out, and although I stopped the movie early so I could get to bed on time, I woke on Saturday morning feeling grumpy and unrested. Soca had scratched at the door at five thirty, waking me from a restless night in which I dreamed constantly of Zoom conferences gone awry. Even before breakfast, the kids began their daily needling, and, with four additional laptops in the house, it seemed there was an open screen everywhere I turned.
Then, at breakfast, Clayton branched out from his usual fraternal taunting. “You’re so hideous,” he usually says to his sisters. But this time:
“Sylvia, you’re a bastard.”
I spun around, eyes wide. “Clayton! What did you say?”
“I said she was a bastard,” he said calmly.
“Clayton! Don’t say that!”
“What?” he asked innocently. “It’s not like it’s a bad word.”
“Yes, it is!”
“No, it isn’t!”
“Clayton, it is!”
He started to look doubtful.
“Really? It is?”
“It’s a bad word?” He paused, considering. Then he shook his head definitively. “No, it isn’t. Daddy never says it.”
I couldn’t help it; I started giggling. Somehow their father’s prolific cursing had become their barometer for profanity. “Bastard” couldn’t possibly be a bad word if their father never said it. (I’ll have to add it to my repertoire,” Don said later when I told him.)
“Well, it is,” I said, struggling to keep a straight face. “And you shouldn’t say it.”
Clayton, convinced at last, rushed into a string of apologies; despite his near-constant torment of his sisters, he has a strong self-image as a “good kid” which excludes the use of all profanity. But his apologies were light-hearted; he could tell I wasn’t really mad. Even his sisters were smiling, the sting of the taunt obliterated by the novelty of the word.
The levity of that moment set the tone for the day, and what a day it was. While the fog still settled in the neighborhood, we snuggled on the coach under a blanket and finished watching the movie from the night before. Clayton kept piping up: “That’s Frederick Douglas! I know about the Fugitive Slave Law! Oh, we read about the Combahee River Raid yesterday in virtual school!” (Ah, so some learning had occurred while Don was cursing Soca and I was battling with the internal mic.)
It was all uphill from there. The movie ended, the sun came out. Sylvia decided she wanted to be reunited with Sparkle and Rebecca, the baby dolls who had long ago been sent to the attic to wait for the next generation, or for a day just like this one. And, oh, what wonders the attic holds! Down came the baby dolls and their cute little outfits, down came the old board books to read to them and a bag of summer girls’ clothes our neighbors had handed down to us years before. The ladder to the attic stayed down all day. Here were the Easter decorations to put out, and a box of non-fiction books Aunt Cathy had passed along from her kids’ home-schooling days.
It felt, just a little, like Christmas.
“I’m so happy!” Sylvia kept saying. “It’s so good to see Rebecca and Sparkle again!”
She nursed her babies while Dee Dee and I sorted through the clothes: the pink and neon shorts for Sylvia, the blue jean ones for her. Dee Dee tried on outfit after outfit, her eyes glowing with delight at discovering this unexpected arsenal of style— especially with Sylvia distracted by her babies, giving her first dibs.
By ten o’clock, the sky was bright and startlingly blue, and we had all changed into shorts for the first time this year. While the kids rode their bikes and played by the creek, I ripped up a year’s worth of weeds from the garden and turned over the soil. It was the kind of spring day that feels like a promise, when the warm sunshine lures you into putting away all your warm pajamas and you turn off the thermostat and open the doors wide. And it was the kind of Saturday when it feels like the weekend will last forever, and Monday will never come.
“I think this is the best day ever,” Dee Dee said, helping me sprinkle seeds into the coarse soil.
Never mind that by our evening walk, we were shivering in our shorts and the heater was back on. Never mind that Monday did come after all, with all its random worksheets and Zoom meetings, its endlessly loading videos and fatherly expletives. Never mind that Tuesday it rained all day and Wednesday brought a “stay at home” order from the county. Saturday’s promise stayed.
In the girls’ room, four baby dolls cuddle in a miniature Pack-N-Play— “They’re napping,” Sylvia tells me— while the girls host a fashion show with their new clothes. Clayton joins his father in cursing the squirrels who inevitably foil the baffle to eat from the bird feeder (“You bastar—- I'm sorry!”). And, in the wet soil of the garden, my seeds of kale and spinach, arugula and chard, are bursting open and pushing towards the light.