If you spend an extended period of time at my house, you’ll notice a few things to be true: We always (always) have cookies and chips. Our counters are never free of clutter. And our very hyper, very large dog will jump on you and force you to be his best friend. Oh, and at 5:00, almost every night, my 13-year-old son will hop up from whatever he’s doing (even if it’s swimming in the pool or we’re about to eat dinner), declare “I have to call Nana!”, and run upstairs.
Because even though we are a somewhat chaotic family with a house that is not tidied up (ever) and my children’s rooms are covered in a jumbled pile of laundry, school supplies, and computer cords, one of my kids — my teenage son — has a part of his brain that is neat, and clear, and only works on one channel. And that channel is a daily routine.
He’s been routine-oriented since his preschool years, and it never stopped. It started with food: he ate the same exact thing for breakfast every single day for about five years (a cup of dry Cheerios and a piece of cheese. There was no other option in his brain.) He got up at 6 a.m. every morning without fail (even his internal clock was structured) and he always, always struggled with trying new things that might break up this familiar schedule.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and things look much the same around here. The new breakfast? Four waffles with a drizzle of syrup in the middle of the plate (this one’s been going for a few years now). He’s on his third pair of the same exact style and brand of shoes, as every time he grows out of them he’ll say, “I’d like these shoes again please, Mom. Why change something when it works?” And he’s eaten a bagel sandwich for lunch every single day this summer (“just meat and cheese — nothing else, thanks.”)
Consistency. Routine. Rinse and repeat.
The other part of his regular schedule, likely his favorite part, is this: he talks to his grandmother just about every day, and he has done so since the spring of 2020.
When the pandemic hit, our family, like families all around us, felt swift, drastic changes immediately. Prior to March of 2020, my kids were involved in a slew of sports and extracurricular activities, and we made time to see our large family as much as possible. (And let me clarify “large”: my mother-in-law and father-in-law are parents to seven kids, all of whom have significant others, and are grandparents to 15 grandchildren ranging in age from 23 years down to a few months old.)
So family gatherings are … well, big. And they’re frequent, as there is always a holiday, a graduation, a wedding, a basketball championship, or a dance recital going on.
That is, until COVID-19 hit.
We know that not everyone hunkered down and brought their lives to a screeching halt, but we did. And so did my in-laws.
They went from hosting frequent family gatherings with enough food to feed an army brigade to suddenly waking up every day, day after day, to a quiet house. And we went from running to activity after activity and eating dinner at either 4:00 or 9:00 most nights to suddenly being home, every night, week after week.
We switched abruptly from spending our evenings at hockey games and gymnastics practices to playing family board games around the kitchen table in our pjs. And at first, we didn’t mind slowing down (I know I didn’t), but within a few weeks, we all started missing the world outside our door.
And I know my mother-in-law did too.
And so the “drawing challenge” was born. I don’t know if it was her idea or his, but sometime in April of 2020, as we entered our second month of staying at home, my then-12-year-old and his grandmother cooked up a plan to “meet up” on FaceTime every night at 5:00 and draw together.
It fueled his need for structure and routine, as suddenly everything about his life had changed; school was now online, the bus didn’t come at 8:12 anymore, and we never, ever left the house.
And it gave my mother-in-law a connection to the outside world — to her grandson who she was used to seeing quite often. Only now, suddenly, she was living in a world where she wouldn’t see any of her grandkids in person for a year.
I don’t think either of them knew how big the “drawing challenge” would grow to be. How more than two years later, it would still be a mainstay in their lives. How even today, even though we are back to kids’ sports and activities and getting together with friends, they try to “meet” every night at 5:00 p.m.
Or how over the past two years, my father-in-law would pop in and out to play chess with my son or help him study for a social studies test. Or how my other two kids would join up on occasion to read with Nana or do a craft or just chat with their grandparents over a screen since they couldn’t see them in person.
And today, sure, it looks different. Is it every single day like it was back in 2020? No, and that’s okay. My son is busy again with out-of-the-house activities. And so is Nana. And I’m grateful for that, and I know they are too.
But I’ll always remember the bond that grew between them during that time. For the connection each of them provided to the other in a world where everything was uncertain and the loneliness of isolation sometimes seemed too much to bear.
And even now, including on days when we have company over, or my son has theater rehearsal and comes barreling in the door at 5:05, he’ll look at the clock, gasp, and breathlessly declare, “I have to call Nana!”
As the world returns to some semblance of normalcy post-pandemic (or as we all learn to live with COVID in our midst), their “drawing challenge” often gets moved from 5 to 6. Or Nana calls from the car as she’s in transit from one family member’s house to the next. Or, on very busy nights, it gets canceled altogether. And that’s alright.
The most important thing is that my son knows that no matter what life throws at him as he embarks on his teen years, whether it’s at 5:00 p.m. or any other time of the day or night, his grandmother is only a phone call away.
And for that, I’ll always be grateful.