How I Spent My Summer ‘Vacation’

August 28, 2020

I placed the plastic watering can in the kitchen sink and turned on the faucet, when I heard the screams of our 4- and 2-year-old sons, fighting again. After a few minutes of stellar parenting, during which I reminded them about kindness (and keeping their fists to themselves), our oldest son said, “Mama, can you stop talking? We want to eat.”

Back in the kitchen, I realized that in my haste to break up the fight, I’d forgotten to turn off the water. The watering can, with its spout positioned over the counter, had overflowed. Water was all over the kitchen floor and even in the cupboard below the sink.

Searching for something extra absorbent, I found a rug in the kids’ bathroom. Cleaning up the water, I smelled something odious. Sniffing closer, I realized the rug reeked of urine. I turned to see our 2-year-old looking slightly penitent. There I was, on my hands and knees, cleaning our kitchen floor with a rug full of “pee pee,” cursing under my breath and standing up every few minutes to stir an omelet for the kids.

That was the start of my [pandemic] summer vacation, which technically started in mid-June — or depending on whom you ask — mid-March, after schools and day cares closed.

Incidentally, the water was for the corn. Yes, corn, which we were growing on the balcony of a residential building in Pico-Robertson. Weeks earlier, I had taken the boys to a local nursery, which was the closest we were going to get to an enchanted garden during this pandemic, except our enchanted garden came with overpriced ceramic planters and even more overpriced dirt. And instead of a garden gnome, there was an expert on plant fungal diseases.

Our 4-year-old squealed at the sight of some sprouts with a small picture of corn on them. The smile on his face was too good to resist. At that moment, I became a corn farmer.

Did I know anything about growing corn in a box planter on an unshaded balcony? I did not. But I bought some expensive, organic fertilizer, assuming whatever animal it had come from had been fed top-of-the-line, organic feed. I also bought some expensive dirt. Only in America can you be persuaded to pay for something you can dig up on the side of the road — late at night, with no onlookers.

Amazingly, the corn grew and soon, sprouted silk — those shiny, threadlike fibers that look like soft, white hair. They were a perfect match for the white hairs that have sprouted all over my head the past few months, especially since demands increased for me to stop talking and serve meals. In his defense, very few of those demands came from my husband.

Our sons felt a sense of responsibility for our “crops” and helped me sprinkle fertilizer in the box planters, but soon, the corn — much like my hopes for using the bathroom without a desperate toddler banging on the door — withered away.

 The corn — much like my hopes for using the bathroom without a desperate toddler banging on the door — withered away.

With my hopes of summer gardening dashed, I visited a craft store in search of anything that could entertain the kids. Each week, I came home with felt, sequins, glitter paper, stickers, popsicle sticks, beads and my favorite, googly eyes. Everything looks better with googly eyes. My best purchase was a box of sidewalk chalk, which kept the kids busy for 30 minutes each day.

On one occasion, my husband and I took the boys on a two-hour whale-watching cruise in Newport Beach. Nauseated from the choppy waters, they threw up all over our clothes. On another day, we explored tide pools on a beach in Rancho Palos Verdes and bruised our feet on jagged rocks searching for hermit crabs. But it was worth it because I got to use the public bathroom in peace.

This summer has been a blur: Face masks during a heat wave, “outings” consisting of nothing but drawing circles on the sidewalk, and in my case, stress-eating that involved one box of pasta after another.

The silver lining of summer was folding laundry. I taught our oldest how to fold towels and match socks. If he won’t sit down to learn the ABCs with me, at least he can learn some important life skills.

The kids returned to school this week and I’m feeling the ambivalence. Although I’m loving the respite, I already miss them. I even miss their fights. I’m wrestling with a lot of anxiety over whether they would be safer staying at home, and I’m worried I’ll hyperventilate the first time one of them comes home sneezing. 

I know I’ll never get this summer back, and there were many magical moments. That said, if this pandemic is still wreaking havoc next summer, my husband knows to tell the boys that “Mama went to visit the asylum for a while.”

Still, there’s a lot to look forward to. I promised the kids we’d plant a pumpkin in the fall. Given how I resembled the last vegetable we bought, I can’t wait to see how I’ll look once we plant a plump pumpkin.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist. 

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