“You just hate me and want me to die!”
Should I be angry at my 8-year-old or proud of his dramatic flair? It’s yet another meltdown over distance learning. This is not going well, to put it mildly. Virtual school is a disaster for my three big kids, and our toddler is basically feral at this point. My husband works away from home. I’m proud he’s essential, but wish he weren’t. As tears flow down my cheeks, I hear the front door open.
It’s my dad, and he’s shown up with paint and his favorite paintbrush (a Wooster silver-tip angle brush).
Relief floods me. I forgot he was coming today, or maybe he didn’t even tell me. Honestly, my wall calendar still says March. Since Pittsburgh’s initial shelter-in-place order lifted in May, my parents have been part of our close circle of contacts. We would not be surviving without them. Two full-time jobs, four kids under 9. Their support has been crucial throughout these endless months. My mom shows up with board games, cookies to decorate and crafts to make. My kids squeal when they see her car. “Gaga!” They shriek her name as if the pop star herself is rolling up. Gaga shows up with her Marshall’s shopping bag of goodies at least twice a week.
But my dad shows up with a paintbrush.
I suspect he isn’t quite sure how to help. He is not one to ask for the Google Classroom assignments, grab a pack of multiplication flashcards or get to know my kids’ teachers through a Chromebook camera. My dad has always been the more practical type, and most of our quality time together throughout my life has been spent doing something.
So, my dad takes his prized brush into our bathroom. He’s a quiet support when everything is falling apart. As my eldest, Eli, cries over confusion in math, too scared to unmute Google Meets to ask for help, my dad invites him to paint the trim around the window. I tamp down the urge to point out that he is in school. We all need a moment to regroup sometimes. Pap gently instructs him about the direction to paint and tells him how my grandfather taught him during long summers working on apartment buildings.
My dad’s been connecting with us through painting for as long as I can recall. As an angsty tween, I helped him paint the future living room of the house he built, while Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” blared uncomfortably in the background. I feigned boredom, but, as one of three kids, I was just happy to get time with him.
As I grew into adulthood and became a homeowner myself, I applied the skills my dad had taught me. Every surface of our first home was covered in wallpaper and, before kids, my husband and I spent many hours steaming psychedelic blue flowers off our bathroom ceiling.
But by 2010, our infertility journey had led us to the exhausting paper chase of an adoption home study. The process of becoming certified to adopt children is long and arduous, beginning with personal interviews and ending with a home inspection. We were halfway through repainting our kitchen cabinets before we realized we were in over our heads, with a social worker visit looming. Social workers don’t actually care about an HGTV-worthy home, but they do need you to clear out all of the chipping, peeling lead paint.
My dad and I spent one long evening in our basement painting cabinet doors. As we worked in quiet companionship, I shared my fears about the love and loss that would bring a child to this home. Adoption is complicated, though the world likes to couch it in unicorns and rainbows.
Several years later, my husband and I sat hours from home in an unfamiliar hospital, in an unfamiliar city. Newborn twins were settled into our arms, as their mom made the decision to place them for adoption. We felt wholly awed by these beautiful babies, while at the same time dazed at expanding our family in an instant. While we learned how to balance our fast food dinner with two babies in our arms, my dad worked furiously to transform our spare bedroom — replacing dated wallpaper with a cheery yellow. When we walked through the door carrying two car seats, the smell of fresh paint wrapped around me like a hug. I knew my dad had been there.
Now, true to form, he’s going to paint his way through the pandemic.
Seven-year-old Ezra busts out of his bedroom full of wiggles. My dad is cutting new pieces of trim in the backyard for his bathroom project. Learning to read might be too much right now, but learning to miter quarter round is therapeutic. Once it’s placed back in the bathroom, Ezra can paint right over those nail holes. It looks as good as new. If only the damage to ourselves during this crisis were so easy to remedy.
My toddler, Naarah, waves a paint brush at the wall, getting paint all over herself. I don’t care. She’s helping Pap, doing something other than watching Peppa Pig while I hover over her siblings in “class.” When strangers pass us on the street she shoves us to the side and screams “BUBBLE!” She’s developed a fear of anyone getting close to us after nine months of social distancing and regularly uses words like “nervous” and “shy.” My heart breaks for the confusion her earliest memories will contain. I pray a memory of painting with her Pap is stronger than those of strangers looking down at her with masks covering their smiles.
Naomi, Ezra’s twin sister, is a social butterfly and enjoys distance learning. I’m convinced navigating her school-issued iPad is preparing her to become some type of social media influencer. I ignore the pouty kissy faces she makes at her classmates. I might get an email about it later, but at least she sat all morning. I’ll take the small wins. She takes her turn for a few quiet moments to paint with my dad. She tells me, “Remember always that I painted this part, when it’s all done, OK?” I promise her I will. Every time I scrub toothpaste off that bench I will remember her little hands holding that paintbrush.
Painting is how my dad loves. Many grandparents during the pandemic are struggling to figure out how to provide guidance in a situation they’ve never experienced. They’ve raised their kids, and it didn’t include anything like this. They feel helpless. So they do the only thing they can. They show up.
And for my dad, that includes his Wooster silver-tip angle brush in hand.
Meg St-Esprit is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.