Delayna Gonzalez-Keller and husband Joe Keller spent Friday morning outside at their home in Nederland, as daughter Evelyn, 8, and son Isaiah, 9, worked on their container garden, trimming mint plants and repotting a quickly growing aloe plant.
The garden is one of many home projects the children have undertaken since COVID-19 turned the family’s life upside down.
Gonzalez-Keller was furloughed from her job working payroll for a local business. Because she had to comply with a visitation agreement with the children’s father, who lives in Montgomery County, she was told that she would have to quarantine for two weeks after each visit, and because she couldn’t do her job remotely, she was laid off. She struggled to get on unemployment.
“The unemployment hotline was a nightmare,” she said.
Husband Joe’s work with a Beaumont print shop was reduced as well.
The cut in the family’s income, along with concerns about health and safety as the virus spread, meant “a lot of big changes and a lot of getting creative on keeping the kids OK,” she said.
Evelyn’s twice weekly dance classes would have to stop, and though Isaiah is still enrolled in Cub Scouts, he isn’t partaking in events.
“He can still do some stuff online, but the social aspect that he’s used to is what’s missing,” Gonzalez-Keller said.
Although the children’s father still works and sends money, she said, “I can’t keep up my end of paying. I probably could chip in for a while, but right now the future is so uncertain, we’re trying to save every penny.”
The decision to suspend activities is part economic and part safety-driven.
“There’s so much unknown about what this virus does to kids, that I’m just not comfortable letting them go back even though they have reopened,” Gonzalez-Keller said.
The end of school and extracurriculars, not seeing friends and family and a disruption of day-to-day life meant having conversations as a family to help the children navigate this new reality.
“The hardest part is getting them to understand in an age-appropriate way what is happening. They’re living in a time that’s going to go down in history books. They know something’s wrong, but we’re trying to explain it in a way they can understand,” she said.
Initially, as schools, restaurants and other businesses shut down, they thought it would be temporary.
“Every two weeks, they’d ask, ‘How’s COVID doing?’” she said. Eventually, that question became less frequent. “I think they’ve accepted now that this is the new normal for a while.”
Although the children have barely left the house, Gonzalez-Keller said they started playing Pokemon Go “just to get out of the house and to show them that the town is still here.”
Joe Keller said they tried going to a park one day, but “it was really busy, so we opted to stay in the car.”
Seeing everyone in masks has been another adjustment.
“The whole mask thing really disturbed my son,” Gonzalez-Keller said. It didn’t bother Evelyn as much at first.
“She thought the masks were just a new accessory and they were fabulous,” until the day her great-grandmother came over. The children are very close to her, and missed seeing her.
“The jarring thing was that when she came over she was wearing a mask,” Gonzalez-Keller said. That changed Evelyn’s view of masks. “That upset her, and it made her understand that it was more than [a new accessory], but that it was a safety measure.”
To allay their concerns and ease the transition to the new normal, the couple has come up with projects to keep the kids occupied and mitigate the disruption.
“It’s been weird, but with a little creativity it works,” Gonzalez-Keller said. The goal is “to keep them doing things to take the focus off of what they’re missing.”
They started an herb garden from seeds, and their small porch garden has grown to multiple pots of mint, flowers and aloe. They’re learning to use tools to make things themselves, and also how to cook.
“Isaiah really jumped on cooking and learning to use the grill,” Gonzalez-Keller said.
Tilapia is one of his favorite things to cook, Isaiah said.
“There’s a lot of independence and pride in learning new things, and every little bit of control I can give them in a time when none of us have control, it makes a difference,” Gonzalez-Keller said, adding, “no one’s in control. That chaos is really stressful for them.”
It is stressful for her, as well. “My anxiety is through the roof, just having to count every penny, and the uncertainty of the future,” she said.
One certainty is that the children won’t be going back to Langham Elementary if and when school resumes in August. They’ll continue online learning at home.
“Our school shopping this year included lots of pajamas, so they were happy about that,” Gonzalez-Keller said.
When Isaiah contemplates what he would do if COVID-19 were to simply disappear, he struggles to find an answer. The upheaval to normal life has gone on so long, he finds it difficult to remember the very things he misses — the things that were normal pre-COVID-19.
He does know he wants a Nerf war for his birhtday party this November. His mother says OK but reminds him that the party will likely include just the four of them.
Thoughts of celebrations like birthdays and holidays are more stressful now.
“Christmas is coming up, and there might be delays in shipping,” Gonzalez-Keller said while talking with her husband, and thinking about having the money to buy gifts early while still unemployed.
“All I need is a hug,” chimed in Evelyn.
“Really?” Gonzalez-Keller replied. “I think I’ll keep you. Really, I can’t see going through this with any other kids than these two.”