National Opinions

Grandma’s hugs beat piña coladas for our pandemic-era spring break

“You’re! So! Big!” my mom exclaimed as she was enveloped by the two teen grandsons she hasn’t touched, smelled or surveyed the height of for more than a year.

It was a reunion performed across the nation these past few weeks, as Americans freed by coronavirus vaccines — about 25% of our nation’s adults are fully inoculated against COVID-19 — traveled to see loved ones in real life for the first time in months.

“Why not Cancún? Or Puerto Rico?” my husband said, when I proposed the idea of spending the boys’ spring break visiting all four of their newly vaccinated grandparents. “We finally get to travel after all this, and you want to return to our childhood bedrooms?”

I know. All those months of the same four walls with the same four people and Groundhog Daying it even further back into our damaged amygdalae, a trip home may not be what the shrink ordered for us.

But sorry, hubs: “I miss Babi’s hugs” from a child outranks all of our piña colada pining. This was for them.

I was nervous about flying. While some airlines guaranteed they would keep the middle seats open, I couldn’t resist the $57 one-way, nonstop ticket to Los Angeles on a budget airline that packed us in, no blocked seats. Say it with me: fifty-seven dollars!

I quickly booked the tickets, snagging good seats that would keep our family together. My husband and I are also vaccinated, and our kids tested negative for coronavirus before we left.


At the airport, it felt preposterous to obey the social-distancing signs throughout the terminal, only to be squashed like standing sardines once we all got on the plane.

On the aircraft, I didn’t see anyone maskless or half-masked, and there was a sense of communal friendliness I haven’t felt since the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“You need help with that?” and “Let me get out of your way” were phrases both common and refreshing.

But it’s still flying. And if you’re thinking of finally returning to travel, just know it’s the same old story of shrinking leg space and uncomfortable seats, plus masks.

Southern California, where my in-laws live, was roaring back to life at beachside taco stands and rooftop bars. Hosts at restaurants greeted us warmly: “It’s so good to have people back, thank you for coming.”

It wasn’t the raging crowds that had overwhelmed Miami. Most crowds we saw were families drinking in fresh air and new surroundings.

And then, through the car windows, we saw the makeshift outdoor memorials in South Los Angeles. There were silk flowers laced through chain-link fencing in a funeral home parking lot. We saw a memorial service on the beach in Santa Monica, mourners slow-motion struggling through the sand in church shoes, making a sign of the cross before a huge portrait propped up on an easel. Those babbies and tias and friends most likely died after being isolated from friends and family in their final days.

That’s why we decided to join more than 1.5 million travelers who went through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints March 26. It’s about a million fewer people than the normal spring break numbers of Before Times. But it’s also a remarkable increase from about 200,000 people who flew on that date last year, just weeks after pandemic lockdowns began, according to TSA numbers.

Our parents are all in their mid-70s, and all four have health issues. Once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines at the start of March telling Americans that it’s OK for vaccinated adults to gather maskless and indoors, I knew it was time to get the family back together. We are lucky that our parents are not among nearly 560,000 Americans killed by COVID-19.

Where my in-laws live, we saw defiance that mirrored Orange County’s maverick conservative streak. When the county’s chief health officer, Nichole Quick, required last summer that all residents wear masks inside most businesses, protesters surrounded her home and threatened her family. She resigned.

And that sentiment hasn’t disappeared. The mask my mother-in-law puts on the dog statue outside her front door keeps getting ripped from his muzzle. And mask-wearing in public places was sporadic, even though shopping malls and restaurants were full.

The boys stayed masked and even double-masked most of the time. And we watched them physically and emotionally unfurl after a punishing year of stunted social and emotional growth. Yes, their teachers were fantastic with translating online math and literature into real learning, but teen boys were never meant to spend months on end in one house with their parents.

Their outlets for socializing — theater, hockey, lacrosse, band — were largely gone from the physical space. The CDC reported last fall that mental-health-related visits to hospitals increased 31% for teens. We saw them fading and knew we needed to do this. Family, connections, the future, socializing, it would all help. We took them to see a few college campuses — most let us only drive through — to imagine their lives after the pandemic. In just a few days, we saw them change. They relaxed and began using more words and fewer grunts. They spent hours away from screens. They hugged their grandparents hourly. The 14-year-old — hold on for this — took pictures of flowers.

Once we got to liberal Northern California, where my parents are, masking was universal, and indoor dining was scarce. Plenty of shops and attractions were still closed. We met my parents at an Airbnb near the harbor in Half Moon Bay, where my brother is a commercial fisherman.

“No,” my dad, a brick mason built like an ox, said, as his 16-year-old grandson bent over him and enclosed him in a hug. “How did you get so big? So fast?”

There were even more gasps when it was made official that the 14-year-old had outgrown him, too.

The 16-year-old showed them his driving permit and chauffeured them to a local restaurant, where we celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.


“Smooth,” my dad said, in a chill voice that had no apparent relation to the bug-eyed, enraged alien dad who lost it teaching me to drive my stick shift VW Bug decades ago.

Babi fed them dumplings and Czech Easter cakes and kept nestling her fingers into the curly hair she passed on to them and only them.

To heck with piña coladas.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.

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