I have strong lockdown memories of my six-year-old daughter covered in flour, standing on a stool at the kitchen bench, peering into my iPad screen at what was often either the top of my mother’s head or the tiles of her kitchen floor. Skype-scones, we called it. But a six-year-old and a 75-year-old sharing technology across different time zones and trying to cook together was not seamless. There were seams, and tears – often mine.
Stuck at home in Melbourne, I would stare at photos of my friends’ children on social media, noses squished against grandparents’ windows and wish for that. Wish for the knowledge that, when this was over, those grandparent hugs were a mere threshold away, not thousands of kilometres.
And yet that lockdown is long over and I still haven’t seen my family. We tried in January. I had flights booked for Perth and then WA premier Mark McGowan announced a snap border closure and we were scuppered again. Now Perth has had another turn in lockdown. It makes you realise nowhere is immune.
I think it’s taken me longer than some to realise Australia’s vaccine rollout is going to mean more travel delays here than in many other parts of the world. Even when we have no community transmission, due to the slowness of our rollout we are likely to miss out on travel bubbles and continue to suffer periodic lockdowns for longer than many of us contemplated – perhaps years.
This contemplation has me all turned around. I’m questioning my decision 11 years ago to leave my home town.
I came to a city I really wanted to live in. I started a family here. I nurtured a successful career here. I rarely looked back at what I had left. Partly because when I left it, I wasn’t a mother. I could up and visit home easily. I wasn’t tethered to school terms, the increased cost, childhood illnesses, and the reduced accommodation options that came with my increased ménage. And I knew I could come back any time.
I picture my father making his famous spaghetti and wonder how I’m supposed to fill that gap for my daughter
Before I relocated, I spent every Wednesday dinnertime at my Italian father’s house for “Spaghetti Wednesday”. It wasn’t always spaghetti, but it was always something Italian, and usually something my nonna used to cook. The smell of her dishes anchor me to a special sort of terra firma – a childhood with a foot in two different cultures, and all that came with that. Those smells would reach down dad’s hallway every Wednesday, and for that moment I was a migrant’s daughter made whole.
And now, I picture my father making his famous spaghetti, his brown-skinned hands stirring the sauce, house smelling like garlic and rosemary, luscious garden blooming outside, and wonder how I’m supposed to fill that gap for my daughter – and for me.
Before Covid, my mum came here so often, our spare room was called nonna’s room. At some point in 2020, it reverted to being the spare room. My heart broke a bit when I realised. Covid had denuded our house of a nomenclature that gave it warmth and meaning, bound it to family even in the absence of family.
And then came the day my daughter refused to look into the iPad at Skype-scone time. I won’t forget that day in a hurry. It was the first time in 11 years I felt like I’d made the wrong decision; done wrong by my daughter, myself, living so far from family.
I went upstairs to tell my British partner about it, but then I saw him in his usual hunkered position at the too-small desk in the makeshift bedroom-office. I quelled my rising tears and quietly walked out again. His family are all in the UK, including his two young children. His heart aches all of the time. I knew that. I went back downstairs, put the scone paraphernalia away and turned on Netflix, vaguely aware that as a couple who’d always spoken our truths, this was dangerous territory. But talking of his children was getting increasingly painful for him.
My partner still has no idea when he’ll see his children again because we have no idea when he’ll be vaccinated
I didn’t blame my daughter for being anti-Skype-scone. It just isn’t the same, is it? You can’t replicate a nonna’s busy hands kneading dough. Just like you can’t replicate the Italianness of my father’s house; him.
I’ve always experienced separateness: my extended Italian family in Italy; my parents’ divorce when I was a teenager; my move to Melbourne with my own divorce and consequent shared-care of my daughter here; my parents in WA, my sister and nephews in Canberra, aunties and uncles in Queensland, Tasmania and New Zealand. But this is different.
I know my experience is not unique. Blended families, spread out, is part and parcel of a globalised world. One-third of Australians were born overseas.
But that world is now in a big, fat hurry to vaccinate itself. Except for Australia. My partner still has no idea when he’ll see his children again because we have no idea when he’ll be vaccinated. He’s stuck here on an unvaccinated island.
This new type of separateness I’m feeling has a tenuousness to it that wasn’t there before. It makes me nervous and sad, afraid too. Unraveling our lives here, though – convincing my ex-husband to do the same – is so gargantuan it’s unthinkable right now.
So, we wait, my partner and I doing our best to share our inner-worlds – our grief and our hopes, without burdening one another. My father sending me photos of his luxuriant garden, and my mother and I doing what mothers and daughters do – annoying one another, crying sometimes, and hoping that nonna’s room will re-emerge in my house one day soon.