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How the Pandemic Forced One Family Closer

A mom shares the story of when her adult daughter returned home

spinner image Dinkelspiel family phtographed at their home in San Francisco.  On swing: byofriend, Wes, and daughter, Juliette Standing: husband Gary and Frances
Jake Stangel

"Do you think that I should come home when coronavirus breaks out badly?” my 24-year-old daughter texted from Los Angeles on March 1.

Gary, my husband, answered her from our home in Berkeley: Yes. “That's what family is for — to protect each other,” he wrote.

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Two weeks later, Juliet was on the road, driving a loaded car north. Our lives had changed drastically since her first text. The Bay Area was on lockdown. The restaurant where Juliet had been working as a cook shut abruptly, and she had been laid off. Grocery shelves had been stripped bare of toilet paper and Clorox wipes.

Juliet arrived in the early evening, and we collapsed into each another's arms. It felt so good to squeeze her, to savor the tightness of her arms around me. I hadn't seen enough of her in recent years as she left for college and then crossed oceans to pursue her passion for growing and cooking food. Though I was delighted when she settled in L.A., my more-than-full-time job as a news editor gave me little opportunity to visit her.

As I helped Juliet carry her bags to her childhood bedroom, I told myself to be careful. She was no longer a young girl who needed supervision or chore lists. I made myself a promise to parent her as little as possible.

Gary and I were not alone in this sudden transition from empty nesters to roommates of an adult child. Parents across the country have had kids come home from college or show up seeking sanctuary from the coronavirus. For the first time since the Great Depression, a majority of the country's 18- to 29-year-olds — 52 percent — now live with their parents.

And in Berkeley, soon there were four of us. Juliet's boyfriend, Wes, left his graduate program in Wisconsin and moved in. It was more noise and activity than Gary, who is retired, and I were used to, but we were grateful to have Juliet and Wes nearby; our older daughter was in New York City, where COVID-19 was killing people at alarming rates. We had no idea when we would see her again.

Once at home, Juliet started cooking with a vengeance. Our kitchen morphed into a sourdough starter lab. Then she started making face masks, setting up her sewing machine on the dining room table. She, Wes and I tackled the garden, and then Juliet and I immersed ourselves in YouTube videos featuring home makeovers. We took long walks in our hilly neighborhood.

From the outside it must have looked like an empty nester's dream, and in many ways, it was. But there were tensions, too.

Juliet hated to do the dishes. Scraps of fabric and thread from her masks were scattered around the house. And even though I tried to organize Saturday morning cleanups, the house was always dirtier and more cluttered than I liked.

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And the costs! Our water bill had never been so high. It seems long showers were the soul-soothing antidote for dark days, and not only for the kids. The grocery bill climbed as well, but it was offset by the fact that we never went out to eat anymore.

Another issue: Much as I love my daughter, I missed my independence. When Juliet lived in L.A., I didn't think about her whereabouts constantly, but now a big part of my brain thought about her all the time. Once in a while, I broke my resolution not to mother her, nagging her to file a health insurance claim and update her car insurance. I had expected Juliet to feel like she was going backward in life. I hadn't expected to feel like I was going backward, too.

Then, in late May, she was offered her job back. It was at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant where the kitchen was minuscule, barely 8 feet wide. Juliet had to work side by side with another cook, and servers came in and out of the kitchen constantly. There was no way she could stay 6 feet away from others, and wearing a mask while standing over a hot stove would also be a challenge.

Compounding the danger: Juliet has Addison's disease, a rare adrenal disorder in which the body stops producing critical hormones. Juliet had almost died from it during her first year in college.

Addison's is not curable, but it is controllable with medicine. Still, if she got COVID-19, her body might not be able to fight the virus.

Even so, Juliet thought she should go back to work. She felt it wasn't right for her to live safely with her parents while other frontline workers didn't have that option. She FaceTimed for hours with her colleagues, trying to figure out what to do.

I knew what she should do. So did my husband. She needed to stay home. “You can't go back. It could kill you,” I implored. We begged her not to return to her job. Then we tried to order her not to, though we knew that our “because I said so” license had expired long ago.

By this time, Americans were dying by the tens of thousands. The cousin of one of my closest friends, a healthy man of 73, tested positive for the virus and dropped dead of a heart attack five days later. My colleague had to watch her mother die over FaceTime and attend her funeral via Zoom. From stories like these, I knew this was a virus to respect.

To our great relief, Juliet ultimately decided to remain in Berkeley. But that decision thrust her into a funk. She took little solace from the fact that she was one of many young adults who felt their lives were on hold, one of many who had to choose among a slate of bad options.

Her gloom soon enveloped the house. Juliet spent an increasing amount of time in bed, bingeing on Netflix and letting her dirty coffee cups pile up even higher. Wes couldn't cheer her up. I felt helpless. I kept asking her if she wanted to go for a walk, take an online class, talk about it. The answer was mostly no, and, as a parent turned roommate, that sidelined me. I couldn't sign her up for therapy and make her go. I couldn't love her out of her depression. I had to let her work through her troubles by herself.

In the end, it was sewing, not cooking, that brought Juliet out of her malaise. She needed some more pants—she had left most of her clothes in L.A.—so she bought a bolt of white canvas and fashioned it into a pair of jeans. They looked cute, especially with the wide pockets she had improvised. That success buoyed her confidence, and she moved on to making a dress and then some curtains. Sewing, like cooking, meant that Juliet could work with her hands and bring a task to fruition.

Months later, as we still hunker down at home to protect ourselves and others, our group of four has found its equilibrium. Juliet and Wes have started to live a bit separately, shopping for food and often eating dinner by themselves. Wes has found work, Juliet is looking, and they now pay us rent. We all still get together for dinner sometimes, but Gary and I increasingly interact with them around house projects. Juliet and her dad are building a table. She and I are raising worms for a compost pile. And what did Juliet text me about her day recently? “Deep cleaning the kitchen!!” Those are words to make a roommate — and a mother — smile.

Frances Dinkelspiel, 61, is the cofounder and editor of the news site Berkeleyside and the author, most recently, of Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California.

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