This weekend, we had a Big Fall Day.
It’s been a struggle to maintain traditions in this difficult year; so many things that we would normally have done have been made either impossible or at least inadvisable, and the natural rhythm of our calendar has disappeared as a consequence. At the same time, it’s been a struggle to know exactly where to strike the balance—the balance between protection from the front-page threat of a virus and protection from the social and emotional devastation of the upheaval it has caused.
In the early months, we kept ourselves and our children fully cloistered from the world, avoiding any public places or any contact with anyone outside of our household. We were protected, in a direct and literal sense, but the impact was severe. I watched my children grow frustrated and sullen, either withdrawing or lashing out in anger every time I regretfully informed them that another thing they loved was closed or cancelled. As we gained a better footing for our changed world, we tiptoed cautiously into correcting this—allowing a few trusted friends into our bubble, venturing out into the world with prudence and discretion. No backyard barbecues or block parties, for sure, but a hike in the woods or a trip to the toy store, masks on and sanitizer in hand.
The Big Fall Day—this isn’t an official term, but it captures the idea well—is something we’ve always had as a family, since the kids were hanging off of us in slings. A trip out to a farm somewhere in Kentucky. A chance to pick apples and pumpkins, climb on a hay bale and ride on the back of a tractor. As someone who spends all summer sweating like a ham in the oven, it’s one of my favorite days of the year, when the weather finally breaks and I can be as apple-butter-basic as my heart desires. The kids adore it too. It was not something that could be lost to the ash heap of 2020, and as an outdoor activity, it seemed within the realm of things that could be done responsibly. The temperature and humidity had plummeted, and gorgeous blue skies beckoned. It was time. We located a farm about an hour’s drive away that had apples—it turns out many don’t this year, because among all of this year’s other savageries and indignities, a late frost in May killed off many of the local apple crops—and headed out to usher in the best time of year.
I was pleasantly surprised, for the most part, to see how far we’ve come since March. Even outside, even on a farm in rural Kentucky, mask usage was almost universal. Picnic tables were spread out, dividers installed on the trailer that shuttled people like us out to the orchard, lines demarcated on the farm shop floor. We picked our pumpkins, we ate our apple cider doughnuts, we climbed on hay bales and I bought a car load of seasonal foodstuffs, because I’m a sucker for things like that. Aside from the obvious visual difference—this year’s picture of my children sitting on a pile of pumpkins will be easy to identify by year in the future—it felt normal enough.
A few times, I had to be the parent that I hate being and divert my son’s attention away from something that didn’t meet our current standard of care. A piece of playground equipment with too many children on it, or a hay bale stack occupied by the rare unmasked child. “I don’t think we should do that right now,” I’d demur, or “I don’t think those people are being responsible,” hating myself for having to bring fear into our fall festivity. At one point, he asked me, “Daddy, are you afraid of crowds?”, and I winced and muttered an apologetic “sometimes, yes.” All told, the trip was a success; we left with two very tired children and a trunk full of gourds, but the ugly realities of our present world lingered around the edges of it all.
That evening, back at home, our next-door neighbors—the first people we bubbled with in the beginning of our cautious thaw—invited us over to roast marshmallows. We gathered around a fire pit at the bottom of a hill at the back of their deep, wooded lot. Night fell, and as the twilight disappeared, my son became preoccupied with the darkness at the edge of the trees. “I don’t feel safe,” he told me. “I hear weird noises. I want to go home.” I tried to reassure him, saying the things I always say in moments like this.
There is nothing to worry about.
I can tell you what those noises are.
I will never put you in a situation that I don’t think is safe.
I will always protect you.
I hugged him close in my lap, trying to calm him, but he was too keyed up to listen to my explanations. He asked again to go home. I know that a degree of anxiety is a part of childhood, but as an anxious person living in an anxious time, I worry a lot about how much of my own worry I’m bequeathing to my children, where to draw the line between fleeting worry about monsters under the bed and lasting worry about the very real dangers of the world.
A few minutes later, the fire began to die down, and we got up to search the yard for more sticks suitable to throw in. I turned on my phone’s flashlight, and shined it on the grass. An idea struck me. I stood behind my son and shined the light toward the hill, casting a long, boy-shaped shadow on the grass. “Look,” I said, tilting the phone up. “You’re a giant.” He smiled widely, turned back to the hill, and bellowed a defiant scream. His little friend joined him, soon they were there, side-by-side, giants roaring at the nighttime, unafraid of anything. They were now the ones to be feared.
As I tucked him into bed a little bit later, his outlook had completely changed. He looked me in the eye, and said “Daddy, I feel safe.”
It is a scary world, a dark place full of uncertainty and danger. This remains true even as we age and come to understand that monsters don’t lurk behind those trees. It’s worse when there’s no one to reassure us that it’s all in our imagination, worse when there’s no promise of a happy ending. My charge as a parent isn’t just to serve as a bulwark against danger, though it most certainly is that in part. I can keep you away from danger; teach you to look both ways before crossing the street, teach you not to talk to strangers, teach you the dangers of a hot stove or a sharp knife or an adjustable-rate mortgage. That alone won’t give you what you need to face the world.
I can promise to be your protector. I can tell you everything is alright.
Or I can stand behind you shining a light, and watch you become a giant.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)