The first time I took my daughter out of the neighborhood during the pandemic was May 30 and it was nerve-wracking. I was taking her to The Grove, a nature preserve in Chicago’s northern suburbs with a few miles of easy trails winding through acres of prairie and woods that had recently reopened to the public. I lectured my daughter on the drive up. “You have to listen to every word I say and follow directions. You can run up ahead of me but if I stay stop, you stop. If I say come back, you come back. If there are other people we need to wear our masks and give them lots of space. If there are too many people we’ll need to leave. I need you to do EVERY SINGLE THING I SAY.”
Reader, perhaps you are less surprised than I was that my daughter was not enthused to leave her safe and comfy cocoon of the last 2.5 months to go on a masked nature walk with her rigid and neurotic mom!
I lured her out of the house with honey sticks and a handful of Red Vines from the 3.5 lb bucket that my father-in-law shipped to us without warning, a gesture that was in equal measures ludicrous, considerate, delightful. I also let her put a mask on her stuffed dog, Golden.
When we arrived at the park I was pleased to see only a handful of cars and I triangulated the parking lot so as to put as much as many spaces between those cars and mine as possible. When we climbed out of the car, I wrapped a green paisley bandanna around my daughter’s head and tied it in a rough knot, tied a pink Carhartt for Women (what) “work handkerchief” (double what) around my own face and sprayed us both down with a layer of sunscreen followed hand sanitizer that smelled like gin because we’d ordered it from a distillery. The sunscreen was for us; the hand sanitizer for anybody we might meet on the trail. My daughter sported a backpack with a water bottle and magnifying glass and clutched Golden, in her arms.
She squinted at me over her mask. “When do I get a honey stick?” “When it’s safe, girlie.”
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a family–a heterosexual couple with a toddler and a baby in a stroller–headed for the park. They looked like they might be a little slower than us and that stroller was going to be hard to get around on the narrow trails. I grabbed my daughter’s hand. “Hurry hurry go go go.”
Inside, The Grove was gorgeous. Sun filtered through the leaves dappling the ground. Wildflowers bloomed, resplendent. The wetland pools were thick with green algae, nitrogen runoff from nearby farms. Birds hung around like lazy, oversocialized squirrels, content to let us watch them nest. Bugs buzzed by our heads and flew off before we thought to swat them away. We spotted robins and red-winged blackbirds and mallards and wood ducks and geese and swans and a chipmunk cavorting in a felled tree and turtles sunning themselves on logs and a snake slithering in a patch of dry grass and a black beetle with a red head. We pulled off our masks and sucked honey from plastic straws, sucked air through licorice straws. My daughter declined the fruit I packed to feel like a good mom so I grudgingly ate it myself.
We spotted other people, too. I was prepared to see and most concerned for older people in masks. I didn’t want to put them at risk and I didn’t want to scare them. Mostly we saw moms or moms and dads with young kids. Probably desperate to get out of the house after a long spring with nothing to do. My hunch that the trails would be too small to maintain six feet of distance while crossing paths with another group of walkers was right. Our first encounter with another family we were in the middle of a long wooden footbridge over a wet marsh. When we saw them step onto the bridge at the other end and start walking toward us we turned around and booked it back in the direction we came from, stepped off the bridge and waited for them to pass. We did that several more times with several more families, most of whom were masked to various degrees. When there was no space to step aside, I grabbed my daughter and forced her to walk single file right in front of me, or to stop altogether and press our bodies to the invisible edge of the trail to let the other group pass.
I didn’t see anybody else backtrack to give another group space to walk freely. I didn’t see anybody else grabbing their kids. The first older couple we ran into were unmasked and walked right by us, apologetically but seemingly more concerned about us than themselves. It was a relief to to see that people weren’t running away from us and our homemade masks my unbridled child. Even after it became clear that people weren’t going to lose it if the six foot barrier was breached, I continued to take as much care as I could to ensure that we respected it. I continued to step aside, to stop and wait, to go out of my way to let people figure out whether and how they wanted to enter our space. I wanted people to be comfortable with the risks we were all taking. I wanted to avoid at all costs forcing my risk call on someone else.
After an hour or so of doing this dance we reached the longest bridge of the day. Way over on the other side of the marsh I could barely make out a group stepping onto their end of the bridge. I decided we would wait for them to pass to avoid meeting in the middle and one of us having to double back. They had a long way to go but we had plenty of time. Minutes passed. My daughter and I pointed out the different types of purple flowers lining the path and sniffed a few. We looked at the duck houses in the water. We counted up all the animals we’d seen so far. Eventually I checked my watch. This was taking longer than it should have. Maybe the other group had spotted us and were waiting just like we were at the other end? I peered out over the bridge. Ah. There they were. An entire family had plopped down in the middle of the bridge to eat lunch. They hadn’t even noticed us. This was going to far. “We’re going out there,” I told my daughter. We marched out across the bridge and strode past the family, masks dangling around their necks as they dove into their sandwiches. When we got to the other side and spotted yet another group standing around looking at a map I decided we’d been there long enough. It was time to cede the trails.
Throughout the pandemic, we have been careful but not the most careful. My husband goes out for groceries and other supplies, which we stopped wiping down almost immediately. I have wandered longer than necessary in Target and, on one occasion, the art supply store. We have been considerate but not the most considerate. We have made decisions that put the wants and needs of our family above the safety of others. We drove across state lines to camp with friends, stopping at gas stations and for food along the way. My daughter is going to summer camp. Nevertheless, at every fork in the road, every juncture, every decision point, I have tried to open up my eyes to the people around me, both seen and unseen, and at least consider how my actions might impact them.
Before we left the Grove we stopped at a clearing with a cold firepit and rows of log benches. Usually we trace our fingers along the beetle galleries in the wood but this weekend we weren’t touching anything. Instead we hopped from log to log and talked about bugs. It took a few minutes to realize we weren’t alone. There was a backpack at the edge of the clearing. Down in the grass behind the logs a woman squatted scribbling in a notebook. A little boy skittered with a net around the edges of the nearby pond. Suddenly there was a splash and a yell. The boy had caught something! He ran to show his mom. My daughter, who’d been keen to leave only a moment earlier, was all ears. “Mama, I think that boy found a frog!” The woman overheard and urged her son to invite my daughter to look at his catch. He moved in our direction and held the net out. “Do you want to see?” I surveyed the situation, mom and boy without their masks, boy with his arm stretched way out, both at ease. I nodded at my daughter. “Go ahead.” We added one more sign of life to our tally for the day.