what i learned

You’re Much More Than Just My Parents

Blackout series. Illustration: Jules Julien

It helped that I did not grow up in Maryland—my parents moved there a decade ago—so there was none of that sleeping-in-your-childhood-bedroom backsliding. Our quarantine relationship was something new, something we built together. We watched a lot of movies, took a lot of walks, and got into the habit of driving into Annapolis to gawk at all the people refusing to wear masks—a way to direct all our judgment at an external source, instead of at each other.

On my last Friday, we took beach chairs down to the Bay. It was a perfect night: The tide was coming in, and some neighbors were making a bonfire out of their kids’ old textbooks. I asked my parents what they’d learned about me in our time together. They were surprised, they said, how much I liked routine—how I made my bed every morning and stuck to a workout regimen. (Two things teenage Nate absolutely would not have managed.) They learned not just that I could cook, but that I took pride in it. And I had a fastidious side they’d never noticed before. Whenever I did the dishes, I laid the clean ones out to dry in tight, orderly rows. Like a surgeon, my mom said.

What did I learn about my parents? In 33 years, I had somehow never noticed that my mother was a baseball fan. (One night at dinner, she gave me a primer on her favorite players from the ’68 Tigers.) She prefers to watch Australian TV shows because their sense of humor matches hers. She has seen every installment of the Gerard Butler Has Fallen trilogy. She told me stories about her ex-boyfriends, and about the time in high school she and her best friend “adopted” a nerdy guy they thought had potential. Decades later, they all reconnected; now the friend and the guy are dating.

I learned how hard quarantine was for my mom. Before she retired, she was an occupational therapist and spent her days helping patients learn to use their hands again. Now there were people she wanted to take care of but couldn’t—a little girl she’d been tutoring, plus my sister, who was about to have a baby. It was tough not being able to see them.

I learned what my dad sounds like on conference calls (very authoritative). I learned that the millennials in his office call him “Doc.” I learned he is the only person the cat will deign to let brush her. He works out on a rowing machine and listens to the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, even though he has never seen the movie and does not care to. When he hears a piece of machinery, he can’t stop himself from imitating the noise it makes. When he drives past someone jogging, he always says “Clip-clop, clip-clop.”

And I learned more about their own relationship. I knew they’d met on a bus; I didn’t know that, once they got off the bus, they walked for ten minutes in the wrong direction at my dad’s insistence. I learned that my dad had owned a motorbike, and my mom sometimes rode on the back of it. My mother, a biker babe!

That night on the beach turned out to be the last moment for reflection. The next day, my replacements arrived in the form of four new baby chickens. (I had to give up my bathroom.) Fussing over them became a handy distraction from the undercurrent of sadness that was creeping up on us. Because the final thing we learned from quarantining together is that we would miss it when it was over. We knew that we would never spend this much time together again.

*A version of this article appears in the June 22, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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What I Learned About My Parents in Quarantine