Coronavirus forced me to speak to my parents every day — and we learnt some unexpected things about each other

Passionate debates have become just that, rather than full-on gladiatorial fights to the death

Clémence Michallon
New York
Friday 26 June 2020 16:35 BST
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A photograph taken on 22 June 2020 shows the message "Paris loves you " at Orly airport on the outskirts of Paris, a few days before its reopening as France eases lockdown measures.
A photograph taken on 22 June 2020 shows the message "Paris loves you " at Orly airport on the outskirts of Paris, a few days before its reopening as France eases lockdown measures. (BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images)

Back in March, when much of the US entered lockdown, my mother became sick with what we remain relatively certain was coronavirus. There’s no way to know for sure, as testing was unavailable to her at the time, and we don’t know enough about how to interpret antibody testing with regards to past infections.

Still, one thing that was abundantly clear is that my mother was ill amid a deadly pandemic, and while she’s fine now, thank you for asking, I can’t say I didn’t worry. On the day I found out she was sick, I called her – and the day after that, and the day after that. It’s been three months now, and I have yet to stop.

It’s still hard to gauge the ways, profound and mundane, in which the coronavirus pandemic has changed us – especially since it’s still ongoing. But the clearest impact it’s had on my day-to-day life so far is that I, a 28-year-old woman who lives in New York City, have spoken to my parents, a 63-year-old man and a 58-year-old woman in Paris, France, just about every single day since around 20 March. I haven’t kept detailed records, but I can honestly say I estimate there have been fewer than five exceptions to this rule. This means I have pretty much spoken to my parents 100 days in a row by now.

In case you’re wondering about the logistics of this particular experience: due to the time difference (most of the time, it’s six hours earlier in New York than it is in Paris), the phone call must happen by early afternoon for me. On weekdays, I call during my lunch break. On weekends, I call while walking the dog, or while cleaning my apartment (daily phone conversations mean you must multitask, or you won’t get anything done). Some conversations last just five minutes. Most last longer than that. During that time, I have also made it a habit to call my grandmother every weekend, meaning I have more than once ended up in a phone line switcheroo situation wherein my mother attempts to call her mother, only to find out that I, of course, am already speaking to her. Yes, it does feel like we’ve collectively travelled back to the Nineties, in a delightful and strangely nostalgic way.

Relatives and friends with knowledge of the situation have – understandably – wondered how my parents and I have managed to find new material to cover each day. In the beginning, as we found ourselves facing the coronavirus crisis from two different parts of the world, it wasn’t hard to find things to talk about. France was running several weeks ahead of the US in terms of crisis management. My loved ones over there entered lockdown before I did so. There were so many things to discuss – were they able to shop for groceries? Were they wearing gloves? What about masks? Could they go out for walks? Were they allowed to go runs? For how long? How far outside their homes?

We spoke as stay-at-home orders were issued across the US. We spoke as tents were built in Central Park. We spoke as New York City’s Javits Center was turned into a temporary hospital. We discussed all the scary, unimaginable events unfolding around us. It didn’t make them less scary, but talking about things is a way to quite literally take control of the narrative. Talking seemed to help.

Other themes started cropping up over time. As we settled into our respective lockdown routines, parts of our brains were once again able to engage with other topics – or perhaps we needed a reprieve from all the coronavirus chatter.

Now, my parents and I are civil people, but – shockingly – we don’t always agree on everything. And when we don’t agree on something, rather than leaving things alone, we carry on talking, hoping to perhaps find a comfortable way to disagree, or to understand why we disagree, or to remember what we were talking about in the first place. All this to say: we can be, ahem, passionate people, and that passion can sometimes translate into friction.

But as the pandemic stretched out, the substance and structure of our conversations began to change. We somehow got better, quite simply, at talking.

One afternoon, my father brought up a book he had read about cultural appropriation. Where our conversation might have been tense, or confusing, or complicated in the past, it was surprisingly smooth this time around. They spoke and I listened and vice-versa, and somewhere along the way, points were made, and I walked away from the exchange feeling at peace and happy that we had managed to engage with the topic in a constructive manner. Since then, we’ve been able to discuss politics, policing, sexism, racism, and more, in ways that have felt rewarding. This doesn’t mean we agree on everything, but we’ve somehow learnt to trade views in a way that feels more like a tennis match and less like a gladiatorial fight.

Of course, not every conversation has been that smooth, or even that enlightening. Sometimes, all we have time for is a quick chat as my father finishes a video workout, or as my parents head out for their first post-reopening meals. Sometimes, we – yes! – get on one another’s nerves. Of course we do. We’re having daily conversations in the middle of a global pandemic, from two different parts of the world. If anything, it’s a miracle we don’t argue more.

I don’t want this to be another “the pandemic brought us closer” piece, because it’s not exactly what I’m trying to articulate here. Maybe it’s my cynical French side, but the idea that there’s a “bright side” to this crisis and that it has taught us to look up from the to-do list to focus on the essential has always seemed a bit… unsubtle to me. But yes, the pandemic has stoked our collective fear of loss, and if my parents and I found a way to cope by becoming a stronger presence in one another’s lives, I certainly don’t think that’s a negative thing.

This reminds me, in a way, of running. When you first take up running, the best thing you can do is to just stick with it. It doesn’t matter how far you’re going, or how elegant your stride is – and it certainly doesn’t matter how fast you manage to be. All that matters is that you keep showing up, day in and day out, and keep running. You don’t have to do it well – you just have to do it. Through that repetition, your body will become used to running, and your muscles will develop, and your cardiovascular performance will improve – and just like that, you will turn into a better runner. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll train for a marathon. It happened to me; it can happen to you!

Perhaps talking is like running in that way. All we had to do was keep practising, day in, day out. And now, somehow, we’ve managed to improve our relationships with each other – a transformation, I am thrilled to report, that was significantly less painful than running an actual marathon.

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