“Mommy, what do two lines mean?” my nine-year-old daughter called across the kitchen.
And just like that, the Bad Thing entered our house: the coronavirus, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, the Omicron variant. Call it what you will; it was here, among us, infiltrating our family’s immune systems.
Against all odds, we’d managed to fight it off successfully for two-and-a-half years – no small feat with seven people in our household going off to work, to school, to activities. We were cautious in the beginning, abiding by the CDC guidelines for masking and distancing. As those guidelines relaxed and vaccines became available, we started to relax, too. We gradually resumed our social lives, we started to travel again, we dropped our masks.
Even as we puzzled over why we didn’t get sick, we suspected that we couldn’t avoid it forever. All around us, people continued to test positive for COVID; the cautious along with the reckless, the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike. The noose was tightening, the virus circling ever closer. But the more people we knew who got sick, the less frightening it felt: Nobody seemed to be getting hospitalized for COVID anymore, and everyone we knew recovered after experiencing symptoms that spanned “a throat tickle” to “a bad cold.” When our youngest child – our two-year-old son who is at increased risk for respiratory issues – was vaccinated in July 2022, my husband and I stopped worrying and started placing bets on when the pandemic would arrive at our door, even joking about the optimal time for our family to get sick.
I need to come clean: Although I’ve written on this topic in a variety of ways before, I’ve always beat around the bush, obscured my true feelings, tried to be polite. But I think it’s time to be honest, to come right out and say it:
I don’t like summer.
Having made such a blunt statement of fact, I feel the need to walk it back immediately, to be more diplomatic: Summer’s not my favorite season, but it has many excellent features.
But I won’t do it; I’m going to let my opinion stand strong and clear. The truth is that even though I’ll have to start packing school lunches, rousting kids out of bed before it’s light, and spending all afternoon driving between sports practices and music lessons, I rejoice whenever we round the corner to Labor Day.
The “classroom” where I homeschool my two youngest daughters is an open space with sloping ceilings built on top of our garage. There are windows on all four sides of the room. Throughout May and June, as our school year wound down, I had a view of two things just beyond our yard that seemed to represent the changes happening in the larger world.
It was early spring when I first noticed the surgical mask caught on a bush at the edge of the woods. My daughter’s desk is directly underneath a west-facing window, and as I glanced outside one day while helping her with a math assignment, a flash of blue caught my eye. We’ve all become far too familiar with this particular blue during these years of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m still not sure how a surgical mask came to be tangled up in the branches of a bush several meters from our house; my best guess is that it blew out of someone’s car.
I didn’t remove the mask. For starters, it was just far enough through thick brush to make it an unpleasant chore. But I was also curious to see what would happen to it if left to its own devices. Would the wind, which often blows quite strongly through our yard, dislodge it? Would future archaeologists find it, preserved in our heavy Vermont clay, and date it back to the time of the pandemic?
Against all odds and weather, the mask clung to that bush. Every school day I’d look out the western window and see that tenacious flash of blue. At first it stood out in stark relief against the bare grey branches. As the leaves began to emerge, it became more difficult to discern. And then, one day, I looked outside to discover that it had been swallowed entirely by the lush green of new summer leaves.
It wasn’t the first time a bird had become stuck in our woodstove; this had happened twice before.
The three events all began with a scrabbling, scuffling, fluttering noise in the corner of our living room. This type of noise can be shrugged off once or twice, but after subsequent repetitions the message is clear: There is another living thing somewhere in this room.
The first time, it was a House Sparrow. The second time, it was an Eastern Bluebird. Now it was a European Starling.
Just two weeks ago, I wrote a column about how my husband – always on the lookout for new ways our family can have fun together – had outfitted all seven people in our family with bicycles. I ended that column with the line: “And now my husband is starting to dream about inflatable kayaks, so perhaps we’ll see you on the water, too!”
This past week, my mother- and father-in-law flew in from California for a visit. After my husband picked them up from Burlington Airport, he swung by Costco for what has become the Traditional Post-Airport Shopping Binge. Usually they come home bearing a couple of rotisserie chickens, industrial-sized bags of baking soda, and trays of croissants large enough to feed the population of Rhode Island.
They came home with all of that, but this time they had an inflatable kayak, too.
The inflatable paddleboard arrived the next day, and another inflatable paddleboard is en route.
Our family’s pandemic coping strategies have failed to follow national – or even logical – trends. We were already living in Vermont, homeschooling, gardening, and keeping chickens when COVID-19 hit, so we had many of the boxes checked already. In fact, the pandemic prompted us to send several of our children back to school, because of the crushing social isolation of homeschooling during COVID. Sure, we did some mainstream things like buying a large inflatable pool for our yard, walking our driveway obsessively, online yoga videos, and binge-watching The Mandalorian, but I may have been the only person in the world who stopped baking sourdough in response to COVID: It took a pandemic to make me emancipate myself from my starter.
One pandemic-related trend was dubbed: “The Great Bicycle Boom of 2020.” When it became clear that COVID-19 would be sticking around for a while, bicycle ridership and sales increased dramatically. For reasons of both recreation and safety – riding bikes was perceived as safer than riding public transportation – people scrambled for bicycles, leading to supply-chain shortages.
On one of our mid-pandemic daily driveway walks, I floated the idea of upping our bicycle game to my husband. Our four daughters, who love riding their bikes, barreled past us, riding back and forth along the quarter-mile stretch. The issue was that neither my husband nor I had a bicycle — having had two stolen during our years living in the San Francisco Bay Area – nor did we have any way to transport our toddler.
“Maybe we should look into getting ourselves some bikes and a trailer so we could all ride together somewhere other than the driveway,” I suggested.
“We live just around the corner from you; you should stop by with the girls sometime.”
It can be difficult to remember how our most important relationships begin since we don’t realize that something momentous is starting at the time, but the woman with the halo of white hair, kind eyes, and sweet smile said something like that to me back in 2011, as the congregation of Memorial Baptist Church mingled one Sunday after service.
I felt vaguely uncomfortable. We’d just moved to Vermont with our three young daughters after a decade spent in major urban areas. Although major urban areas are significantly more diverse than small-town Vermont, it was easier for us to surround ourselves with friends of similar ages and affinities when we lived in cities. To put it bluntly: No elderly woman had ever invited me to pop over with my baby and toddlers. This wasn’t in my playbook.
But this wasn’t just any elderly woman: This was Beth Wilkinson. She lived with Roy, her husband of over 60 years, in an old white house on Main Street in East Middlebury.
Over the course of the past week, I was awakened several times by howling coyotes.
It’s not news that we have coyotes in the woods and fields around our house: I hear them yipping and calling to each other throughout the year, most frequently during the summer months when I’m doing chores outside at sunset. But there’s something especially haunting about coyotes howling in the middle of a snowy winter night – something eerie and lonely that goes straight to your soul.
I’m not a particularly light sleeper, so it’s interesting that these howls have awakened me from deep slumber multiple times. It could be because we haven’t heard coyotes in a while; months will go by without a single howl. Although the range of coyote packs varies, it generally encompasses several miles, so we hear coyotes only when their range brings them nearest to our house.
These particular howls have sounded much closer than ever before, however, which may be another reason why they’re catching my attention. Although my husband has slept through these mid-night cries, he’s remarked on the closeness of coyote noises when he’s been putting our poultry to bed lately. As further proof of proximity, he had a pre-dawn close encounter with two coyotes who crossed our driveway while he was walking the dog. Although it’s common for us to hear coyotes, this is the first time anyone in our family has actually seen one.
Or perhaps I’m waking up to these howls because, as a mother, I’m conditioned to awake when there are cries in the night. Usually those cries come from my children, but coyote howls are often described as resembling female screams or baby cries. With a house that ranges from a teenage daughter to a two-year-old, it’s hardly surprising that my weary brain gets confused.
It just so happens that I’ve been thinking about loud noises quite a bit lately, because we’re trying to teach our two-year-old son to stop screaming at the cat.
During our family’s early years in Vermont, my friend Deborah warned me that January was the coldest month. “There’s usually one week every January when the temperature never gets above freezing,” she said.
So far, history has proven her correct. But January 2022 is an overachiever: As I look ahead at the 10-day forecast I see only one day with temperatures over 30°. Most nights dip down into negative temperatures; this morning at our house it was -22°.
My daughter – the same one who shouted snowfall spells at the sky in October – now moans, “I’m tired of winter; I want spring!” But, in general, we take the frigid temperatures in stride. We make jokes like, “Oh look, it’s warmed up to a balmy -5°!” We stay inside and are grateful for woodstoves, good books, hot drinks, and Darn Tough socks. And when the temperature is reasonable – anything above 10° — we jump at the opportunity to go skiing.
Still, things got so bad that our school district cancelled school one day because of the cold. Nothing was falling from the sky, but the wind chill was supposed to make temperatures feel like -35°. It was a surprising move for Vermonters, and there were mixed reactions to the district’s rationale (something about buses not starting and kids getting hypothermia at recess). The independent school that my two oldest daughters attend, which usually follows the district’s closures, announced in multiple emails with capitalized subject lines that school WOULD carry on. One of these communications included the sentence: “We aren’t a bunch of weenies.”
My daughters and I watched in fascination as the black cloud pulsed and swirled over our yard. Its movement was organic and unpredictable as it rose, fell, expanded, contracted, pulled to the left and then to the right. Finally, in response to a signal not accessible to human understanding, it dropped down onto our lawn.
The cloud moved as a single entity, but it was composed of hundreds of birds: European starlings.
It was the third such starling cloud we’d seen that day in our travels around town, and one of dozens we’d witness throughout the autumn of 2021. The phenomenon was gorgeous, mysterious, and left me with nothing but questions.
What was going on? How and why were so many individual birds moving as one? I didn’t recall seeing these starling swarms in past autumns: Was this something new, or something I’d failed to notice until now?