Being a long distance grandmother has its compensations. Every morning since corona-lockdown, I’ve woken to images of my son and his young family managing their splendid self-isolation in northern NSW. There are five of them and they’re in this together: mother, father, toddler, newborn and Norman. (Norman is a greyhound but try convincing him.)
The sun rises early in their part of the world, and they are usually up to greet it.
The still-warm autumn mornings find them on a quiet stretch of beach near their home, making friends with crabs and discovering bear caves. I watch video of the almost-two-year-old running, falling, picking herself up and running some more towards her father to show him the treasure she clutches in her pudgy little hand. I laugh out loud at images of the two of them doing whizzies that leave them both staggering around like a couple of sailors on shore leave.
There is a still photo of her standing behind Norman and holding his lead. Their heads are on a level, but he is 37kg of couch potato that can turn into coiled spring at the sight of anything white and fluffy. I have seen footage of her waving away all attempts on the part of anyone else to ‘walk’ Norman. No matter how often she drops the lead – diverted by a shiny stone or clump of seafoam – he stands just like he does in the photo, waiting for her to pick it up again.
Later in the morning, images of her craft activities start to flood in.
She is busy at her new craft table, squishing paint out of tubes and rearranging shells in her ‘fish pond’. Every so often she downs tools to show her baby brother some love. This is often a vigorous demonstration that involves the circling of at least one chubby arm around his neck. He accepts it with grace and equanimity: he even seems to like it.
He is an unknown quantity, this new addition to the family.
When I first meet him, he’s a tiny wizened old man, frowny and unimpressed with life outside the womb. He screws his eyes closed and doesn’t seem to like what he sees behind his eyelids. Or maybe he just doesn’t like his new environment with its harsh lights and loud noises.
When I last inhaled his scent, he was six weeks old: a wide-eyed cherub wearing the trace of a smile, even in his sleep. That week of his visit, we ‘distant’ relatives jostled for position inches from his face, competing for his first full-on beam. Weeks later, on my solitary two-metre distant obstacle walk around the park, my grandson and I FaceTime. He smiles right at me – not a wind-induced grimace but a deliberate ‘I like what I see’ smile – and somehow I manage to capture the moment on a screenshot. Grandmother and grandchild – crinkly eyed – pleased as can possibly be with each other.
My son’s family lives in a world of ocean sunrises and shorelines that go on forever.
Lockdown has been good to them. Norman especially is loving the breakfast barbecues, strolls by the river and post-stroll takeaway puppycinos, judging by the images flooding in daily.
Back in cold old Melbourne, the children’s aunt, uncle and grandmother watch on with amusement and a little envy of their sun-kissed lifestyle. Seeing photo evidence of their day-to-day life is the highlight of our day. We are privy to so much more detail than we would be if they lived in the next suburb. From 1600 kilometres away, we bear daily witness to the small steps and major milestones of my son’s offspring, and to the transformation of my firstborn from fun-loving young man to a fun and loving father.
Watching from afar the accelerated development of these two small humans creates the occasional twinge of grandmother FOMO: a fear that my absence from their lives at such a formative time will render me inessential. And then I think of Norman – huge, barrel-chested and utterly still – waiting for my granddaughter to remember his existence.
And inevitably she does. Once the crabs have all scuttled into their holes and the bears have retreated to their caves, she will pick up his lead and together they will continue on their way. The ties that bind them are naked to the human eye, but the connection is real.
In a week, my granddaughter will turn two.
Thanks to the miracle of technology, I will be able to share in the celebrations. And when lockdown is lifted and we are reunited, it will be my turn to wait patiently until she picks up the lead. As I know she will.
This story was first published in The Big Issue in May 2020.