But with my younger child now a freshman just returning from her midwestern university after three months away, I can’t help thinking how this would normally play out. She should be making plans with her high school gang, grabbing car keys on her way out the door as she tells us they’ll be gathering at one friend’s house and then going hiking or taking a trip into the city and then dinner with another bunch of friends and probably a late night get-together at someone else’s house.
Not this year. She returned home yesterday, lugging a suitcase plus two carry-ons, because with the advent of Thanksgiving vacation, the dorm is now closed until well into January. And the way infection rates are rising, there’s no assurance they’ll be back even then. So rather than four days’ worth of Thanksgiving vacation clothes, she staggered out of the airport toting everything she might need at home through the winter and maybe into the spring.
When my son flew home for Thanksgiving for the first time three years ago, my husband and I both jumped out of the car at the airport curb, ignoring the glare of the state trooper whose job it was to keep traffic moving as we embraced our firstborn before we all bundled back into the car together for the drive home. And that time it hadn’t even been all that long since we’d seen him, having traveled to his school for parents’ weekend just six weeks earlier.
My daughter left from this same airport curb in late August. There were no visits, no parents’ weekends, no opportunity for us to set eyes on her even if the 900-mile trip hadn’t been a deterrent. And now that she was finally back, there was no hugging or kissing or shrieking with delight at the sight of her. We tried to smile our joy as I hurried out of my car and into my husband’s while Holly took my place behind the wheel to follow us home. Knowing she was arriving from one of the most infected states in the nation, we were taking the quarantine instructions seriously – right down to the drive back from the airport, which she would have to do on her own despite being fatigued from a week of late-night studying, midterms, farewells to friends, flights, and airport layovers.
It was more strange than I could have imagined, waving to her through the doorway as she settled herself into the guest room that she’d be using until she had results from a COVID test scheduled four days hence. “Not even my own bedroom?” she asked wistfully when we discussed the quarantine protocol on the phone the week before. But no, the guest room had its own outdoor entrance and bathroom, so that was the safest option for now.
Even the traditional welcome-home dinner felt different. For my son, the first night of Thanksgiving break always meant his favorite meal. Every year he chose the same thing: hamburgers, made with our special family recipe, and apple crisp for dessert. Holly put in her request for her first meal at home weeks ago: homemade mac and cheese, with chocolate mousse pie for dessert. I smiled at her desire for classic comfort food, knowing she’d been eating mostly acai bowls and tofu-topped salads while at school.
I made the menu she requested, and since it was a somewhat mild November evening – temperatures in the high 40’s – we turned on the patio floodlights, arranged chairs at a social distance and sat outside in the dark to eat together.
While we ate, Holly told us about new friends, bike rides, favorite cafes, homework assignments, midnight pizza runs, a weekend trip up north to her roommate’s family’s lakeside cottage. Though the night air grew chilly, it was like any dinner conversation with a happy college freshman during Thanksgiving break. And as she talked, I reflected on all that had worked out just fine for her. No football games or big college parties or concerts on the quad, true. But she’d already made great friends, navigated her way around a new city, joined some clubs and learned some Arabic.
From conversations with other parents of college kids, I suspect that the current circumstances may be hardest for sophomores, who were just finding their footing back when their schools shut down in March of their freshman year and returned to campuses where everything feels sadly diminished from how it was a year ago -- if they returned at all. To my freshman, it’s all new and interesting, without much basis for comparison.
If all goes well, she’ll be notified of a negative result from her COVID test by Wednesday night. The three of us will sit down together the next day for Thanksgiving dinner, this time indoors at the dining room table. It will be different from a normal Thanksgiving, of course, without the usual relatives around to join in the celebration – and no return trip to the airport on Sunday, since the remainder of her fall semester will take place at home in front of the computer.
But it’s still Thanksgiving vacation. Our freshman is home, brimming with enthusiasm for college life. And as we celebrate Thanksgiving with her, we couldn’t be more thankful.