On The Road: Pandemic Parenting and Backyard Movies

Pandemics are a good time for a backyard cinema. Annette Hinkle photo.

By Annette Hinkle

“Curiouser and Curiouser,” said little Alice. This was back in the 19th century, and it came in response to the bizarre things she encountered as she bumbled her way through Wonderland, including stoned caterpillars and free pieces of cake.

But Wonderland’s got nothing on 2020.

Yes, things are weird everywhere these days, and that includes at my own humble abode in the Woods of Northwest, from which I haven’t much strayed since 2019.

That’s not like me. It’s also supremely ironic, given that when I started a monthly column for the paper a number of years back, I named it “On The Road.” I chose that name because I wanted something that was generic enough to fit a number of themes, especially travel, which has always been a priority in my life and I thought would remain a constant.

Silly me. Now I might as well rename my column “On The Driveway,” because that’s about as far as I go on any given day, if only to retrieve the mail from the battered box at the edge of the road.

It wasn’t always like this. Full disclosure: My husband, Adam, and I have long been known as the couple that “swaps” — houses, that is. For several consecutive Augusts (13 at least), we traded our place in East Hampton for someone else’s living quarters in various and often random parts of Europe.

Every summer, it was always a different “someone” with whom we swapped. From the canal house a block from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, to the pastoral spread in a quintessential English village near Oxford, a place with a pool in the charming Provençal town of Mallemort (which means “bad death”), or the old olive villa set above the Tiber River in the sleepy medieval hamlet of Nazzano, north of Rome, every non-air-conditioned adventure was unique and generally hot as hell, as Europe often is in summer.

But this year, we’re all hunkered down. That includes our daughter, Sophie, who just turned 19. I think of all of us, these months have been the most difficult for her, as this forced quarantine comes at a bizarre time in our parental/offspring relationship.

You see, our daughter had finished most of her freshman year at the College of Charleston when pandemic struck. Sophie had called right before the shutdown, sheer joy in her voice, to report that she had finally found “her people.” She had joined the rugby team, was assigned a rugby “mom” — an older student whose job it is to look out for her and offer advice — and she had gotten politically motivated in a way we hadn’t seen before.

In other words, she was growing up.

Then spring break arrived — and she never went back.

I know it’s been horrible for the high school seniors who are now facing the unknown of college, but it’s also weird for kids Sophie’s age in a way I hadn’t really considered before. With roughly six months of adulting under her belt (if you can call living in a dorm room and having your parents foot the bills “adulting”), she has suddenly been dropped back into the nest. A nature film fledgling in reverse, plucked like a baby bird off the ground and placed into the protective care of her doting parents against her will.

I’d like to say these four months since her arrival back home — without her stuff, I might add, which is sitting in her roommate’s garage somewhere outside Charlotte, North Carolina — have been a time for us to bond and reconnect. But that wouldn’t be quite accurate. In truth, we find ourselves traveling different paths at this point in our lives, even in the same house.

For example, when Adam and I get up in the morning, Sophie has often just gone to bed. Most of what we see of her is when she emerges from her room to make her own vegetarian dinners, or she comes down the stairs and jumps in the car to go visit a friend on the quarantine “bubble” list, or heads off to watch sunset alone at the end of Mile Hill Road.

The job she was counting on this summer didn’t materialize, and we weren’t all that keen about her working with the public anyways, so her time has remained unstructured and her own, for better and for worse. Her room’s a mess, her hair has been dyed a number of colors, and she’s scoured the racks of the LVIS shop in East Hampton, buying other people’s cast-offs at bargain prices to cut, shred and sew into new funky fashions that will work with the Doc Martens.

I get it. She needs the separation that she had only just started to explore when so much of life went wrong.

Now I also understand the important role that all those summer house swaps in Europe played over the years. We did the first one back when she was just 5 years old, and every year our time away was when we could focus on family, kick back and explore the world with no more pressing agenda than making sure we hit the fromagerie before it closed.

Now, Europe is a distant dream for any American, and I wonder if study abroad will even be a possibility for our daughter in the coming years. One thing is certain: She’s going back to Charleston whether classes are fully online or not. We’re committed. She signed a contract for an apartment rental right before pandemic hit.

But, truthfully, at this point there is nowhere else she’d rather be, and she’s actually headed back south early — the first week of August, when we traditionally headed off to Europe. Instead, she will stay with her friends who are renting their own houses until she can move into her apartment in mid-August.

She’s leaving our bubble and will truly be on her own in a place that is seeing COVID-19 soar upward. We’ll be like strangers next time we see her, required to wear masks in each other’s presence and avoid too many hugs. If she gets sick, she’ll have to deal with that on her own as well.

Strings of lights can make the backyard feel like Europe. Annette Hinkle photo.

It’s a very exaggerated, and truly frightening, example of the natural separation that occurs between parents and teenagers anyway.

Which is why before she goes, I’m doing my best to make some memories. We recently bought a digital projector and set up an outdoor cinema in our backyard, using the same screen that my dad projected our 8 mm family films on back in the 1960s. I strung Christmas lights to make it feel like Europe, and we christened the setup the other night with a screening of “The Descendants,” starring George Clooney. Directed by Alexander Payne, it’s set in Hawaii, a place we love and know very well, but it offers the alternative view on paradise, one where things can, and do, go horribly wrong, even when the sun is shining and the palm trees are swaying.

Like Clooney’s character in the film, who is struggling to bond with his two daughters, tragedy brings them closer, with this hardship I can only hope that my own daughter will eventually look back at our time together these last few months as a rare, if unexpected, gift that served her well.

Only time will tell — but between you and me, I know it’s been good for us.