Stay Awhile

Megan Swoyer
Photograph by Jean Lannen

“Where are you off to now?” When I was growing up, my father used to ask that question a lot when I’d leave the house. He’d not only question me, but all of my seven siblings. He wasn’t crazy about us going “out all the time,” whether it was for bowling, a movie, or to spend time at a friend’s house. Why not enjoy our home?

Then, when I was a twenty-something with my own apartment and I’d hug my parents goodbye after visiting the homestead, they’d say: “What’s the rush? Do you really have to be anywhere? Why don’t you stay the night?”

I almost never did — unless, perhaps, there was a snowstorm.

Driving away, I’d ask myself why they wanted so much “extra” time with us, even when we were adults.

Recently, the answer became as clear and resounding as the cardinals’ happy songs outside my bedroom window at dusk. I was about to pull down the blinds and call it a day. Normally, some of the rooms in the homes behind my house have lights on and I can see a few distant silhouettes. Maybe they’re putting something in the refrigerator or watching television. Perhaps they’re talking on their phones. They appear almost as if they’re in slow motion.

But on this cool spring night in mid-April, peeking beyond the vivid forsythia bushes that line the back of our yard, I saw an unusual amount of activity through my neighbors’ windows. Rather than close the blinds, I gazed for a good while at the animated scenes going on in houses sheltering all ages of people, almost looking holiday-like. I guessed that, based on their postures and movement, they were dealing cards or setting up board games in the family room, or whipping up evening snacks in the kitchen.

The entire row of houses behind me appeared as though it was a stage filled with a cast of lively characters portraying what — and where — family life should be. I wondered if the parents in those scenes felt the way I did.

I imagine there might have been some unfriendly discussions and bantering about how often they’re washing their hands, why the dishwasher wasn’t being emptied, the too-loud music/Podcast — but still, love seemed to encircle the homes, indoors and out, riding a cool spring breeze that swirled lightly amid the budding trees. I took in those pictures, each awash in a warm, golden light.

In my own home these past several weeks, I’ve been bouncing from room to room with a perky step. Cooking up a storm, announcing movie-night options, waiting excitedly for my tulips to burst forth with color, pulling out our very-old Yahtzee game (let’s play while eating breakfast … who cares?), and looking forward to afternoon family bike rides as though I was a young child.

All was right with my world.

Hold on. What? How can all be right when we’re in the throes of one of the planet’s most tragic pandemics? It’s not all right, at all! The devastation has forever changed us — people across the world are succumbing to a disease by the thousands, daily. And yet the irony of such calamity is the happiness that quietly, almost sneakily, hovers in many households. We’re feeling bad and good in the very same second!

How can I sense an ounce of joy at a time like this? The answer: They’re home. Simply, our twenty-something sons are here; they’re safe, and at night their heads are on their pillows, just down the hall. You see, when they’re home (and this is how it’s been for me since they came into my life), there’s not a thing to worry about, and all is right with my world.

I remember getting ready for bed in my ’tween years and hearing my siblings going through their bedtime rituals. We’d say goodnight to Dad and head upstairs. And then Mom would check on each of us, and she’d start the John-Boy routine. (You may recall “The Waltons,” a television drama popular in the 1970s. At the end of each episode you’d hear the star, John-Boy, and his family members bidding each other good night.) My mother thought that ritual was so silly, but she’d imitate it, and I loved it. She’d say in a comical voice, “G’night, John-Boy; g’night, Mary Ellen.” And I’d laugh, falling asleep with such contentedness — a feeling in my heart that could never be explained.

And so to all of us who’ve been asked to stay home while we fight off this unthinkable disease, look for that proverbial silver lining. Right now, my silver is more like glittery specks of gold. I know they may disappear out the front door at any second, so for now, I’m basking in the present — and the presence. And I don’t have to ask: “Where are you off to now?”