Wild Honeysuckle. Photo by Liz West. https://tinyurl.com/wjhtbbuv

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It’s Spring 2021 and the Trauma Is Blooming

My kids think all flowers are edible, which is entirely my fault for teaching them to drink honeysuckle nectar and letting them eat wild mulberries off the bush when taking our thrice-daily walks during spring 2020’s deep quarantine. A year later, spring re-emerges, and the toddler moseys inside with a yellow pollen face from finding “honey” in a pink camellia. He’d copied his older sister’s camellia-sucking; she’d been eating them with her kindergarten pod-mates this 2021 spring. Last year I had no idea what a pod was; no one did. This spring, our pod-mates are the only people my three kids and I have seen all year, so they’re the ones they chose to potentially poison. My pod-mom friend looked up camellias and found that their leaves and buds are used to make tea, so we figured the kids weren’t too toxified. Still, we had to put the kibosh on the camellias in case they decided to eat something dangerous next. Camellias represent love, affection, and admiration, which accurately describes how I used to feel about springtime in North Carolina, my current home. This year, though, the bright blooms and blue skies, the warm breeze and billowing coats of pollen have, at the risk of sounding like a snowflake millennial, triggered me. I’m Gen X. We don’t do “triggered.”

Spring in North Carolina starts sometime in February, which, as a native Midwesterner, amazed and delighted me during my first several years as a transplant. Who ever heard of flowers blooming in February? After growing up in Ohio and going to school in West Virginia, my then-fiancé and I were this close to moving to Pittsburgh; happily, we diverted to North Carolina instead. Pittsburgh, all gunmetal gray, yellow steel bridges crisscrossing dark rivers, blinking neon signs giving you seconds to cut your car from the far-left lane of a bridge to the far-right lane of a tunnel while drivers honked, was not the home of my heart. Moving to North Carolina, all cerulean skies, bright swaths of riotous pinks and purples, flowering crape myrtles and wild dashes of forsythia, was magic. I couldn’t wait for my kids to play in those bright, blossomy Carolina springs.

The season wasn’t entirely enchanted. The Pollening, first of all, took some getting used to. The Midwest, for all its endless gray skies and late blooms, never coated my car in snow-thick yellow pollen. We regularly turn into sneezing messes each spring. And along with the awakening blossoms and birds, North Carolina springs also summon the fire ants. One spring day I made my kids lunch and spread a blanket on the grass only to find the entire lawn a writhing mass of fire ants. My daughter talked for years about how she got bit by an ant that attached itself to her foot and “Daddy had to brush it off me.” But generally, spring was a picturesque time of year for me and my kids, an excitement for the long, luxurious summer ahead.

Quarantine spring was another beast entirely. It was one thing to look forward to the longer days, the warmer weather, the honeysuckle, when my older kids were in school at least part-time. How much fun to get them home and go for a walk! How nice to make the littlest ones a picnic and fight the fire ants while the eldest ate in the cafeteria. Such joy to play with the neighborhood kids at the bus stop in the warm, sunny afternoons. And then all routine vanished, the ground we’d thought was solid dropped from beneath our feet.

Wrenched from their friends and schools and library story times into shelter-in-place isolation, my happy spring children quickly plummeted into virtual-school-resistant, weeping, tantrum-throwers. To be honest, I plummeted, too. Desperate to escape our small house where my husband was working from home, his desk in a corner of our kitchen where he took conference calls while the kids wailed, I took them outside into the spring as much as I could. All the usual places we’d go to enjoy the weather and find other kids were now off limits. Early in isolation, back in the days where neighbors put stuffed animals in their windows for kids to spot during their walks, back when we didn’t know how the virus spread, when we chalked our driveways and sang from windows and felt in this together, alone, I took the kids up to a lake thirty minutes north of our house. It was a chilly spring day, and we found a spot where we only had to dodge a few fire anthills to get to the water to throw rocks and poke things with sticks. We walked through the woods, but the quiet felt eerie instead of restful, a sort of idyllic impending doom. “I feel like something bad is about to happen,” my son said. I tried to act like a responsible adult and reassure him, but inside I felt the same way. I let him throw a Dorito into a pile of fire ants as a distraction.

The “something bad” turned out to be rain. Rain, when trapped together with no indoor public areas to escape to, was the ultimate horror. On those days I piled the kids in the car and hit the drive-thrus, sanitizing the Happy Meals and Styrofoam slushie cups before passing them back. The upside to the rain was what my kids christened Glorp. Glorp is wet pine straw found in one certain neighborhood crevice. My kids liked to go “fishing” there and throw rocks in the Glorp and generally make a wet mess, but at least they weren’t inside watching YouTube. One of the only school assignments my son did without rolling on the floor in a flailing meltdown was to write about how his baby brother ran into the Glorp and fell down. “Mommy had to pull him out and his pants were all brown.” As quarantine spring dragged on, it became apparent that isolating had not stopped the virus and school would continue remotely next year. While the kids Glorped one afternoon, I stood on guard for cars, nerves raw, heart pounding, the coming remote year looming, and it occurred to me that I was legitimately having a nervous breakdown. I called my doctor for anxiety drugs, and I decided on the calculated risk of a school pod, and somehow, we Glorped our way out of spring 2020.

And now the season has returned, as seasons are wont to do. The honeysuckle and mulberries haven’t bloomed yet, not like last year, and their absence makes me nervous. When we go for walks, they’re just not there, and I feel this uneasy lull. Like I’m waiting for the last triggering 2020 reminder to pounce on me. I continually flash back to the trauma of last year. The bright blue skies and the blossoming walks with miserable children. Ordering six bananas online and getting six bunches. This spring I’m still avoiding stores with my mask-resistant, touch-everything toddler.

On this day I’m doing the delivery option, which will cost twenty dollars more that I don’t really have, but I’m thankful enough that Maurice, the Food Lion shopper, is in the store for me. Maurice says the Food Lion doesn’t have Juicy Juice and sends me a picture of the juices to choose a different one, and he’s in the refrigerated aisle. Every mom knows the Juicy Juice is in the non-refrigerated aisle, beside the cereal, right under the sign that says aisle 8, JUICE, so I mom-respond and ask him if doesn’t mind checking aisle 8. Maurice sends another photo from the wrong pasta aisle and I mom-direct that one, but I get in the shit mom-ing in real life and miss his request about replacing my kids’ chocolate Easter bunnies. The ones with their bunny butts facing out weren’t available and Maurice checks out without replacing them. When Easter is just around the corner and I’m avoiding stores, that stings.

In the same way I don’t remember how I mommed my way through last spring’s nervous breakdown, I really have no memory of how I replaced those bunny butts. I probably curbsided a bunch of stuff from Target, hoping the regular, front-facing bunnies were tucked at the bottom under the drier sheets and maxi pads so the kids didn’t see. Accepting probing questions about maxi pads is far preferable to queries about why there is Easter chocolate in a Target bag. Somehow, I got the bunnies, and their Easter was as it should be, or as close as I could get during our continued social mostly isolation.

Keeping things sort of okay, keeping us mostly all right, has been my goal and my cycle this whole year. And now we just need to get through spring again. It’s time. The fire ants are back and have already been brushed off of a kid’s hand. The bees have returned, and the toddler even got bitten by the season’s inaugural mosquito yesterday, right in the middle of his forehead. Our YouTube detox walks have resumed. On our most recent ramble, I smelled the honeysuckle before I saw them. The delicate, sweet scent immediately took me not to 2020, but to rail trail walks with my friends during grad school. And I was happy instead of traumatized. My daughter squealed because the honeysuckle were just babies—delicate, tiny blossoms—and the toddler grabbed one to put in his mouth. “Me eat them,” he said in his caveman syntax. My eldest informed him that they were too little to eat and besides, we don’t eat them, just suck the nectar out, so at least someone was listening to my don’t-get-poisoned-eating-flowers lectures, and we walked along, past the dried-up-Glorp crevice, all of us holding hands, dodging the fire ants as we went.