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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

The Story So Far In Kansas City: How The Grandparent-Grandchild Bond Endures Pandemic Separation

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Caroline Campbell holds a storied photograph of her grandfather that's kept her going through the pandemic. The photograph was taken in Scotland during World War II, on a short break from fighting Axis forces.

For one young woman, a black-and-white photograph of a grandfather has been a source of strength. For her older colleague, memories of holding a newborn grandson inspire longing. These are their stories.

Earlier this fall, I sent my colleagues at KCUR a questionnaire about how their lives had changed in the course of half of a year dealing with COVID-19. I expected to hear a lot about the effects of being immersed in news when so much of it is bad.

That wasn't what I got.

Instead, I learned about the people my coworkers love. One had just lost his mother, but felt lucky to live with his best friend—his wife. Another was planning a pandemic wedding. And yet another, formerly a bartender, struggled to find new ways to support his dearest friends in the service industry.

One of my questions was a request for memories from right before the pandemic that revealed how much things had shifted. Two colleagues—one who just turned 30, one closer to 70—described the last time they got to hang out with a grandparent or grandchild, and how those memories took on a life of their own in the months they'd spent apart.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Reporter and editor Dan Margolies shows a picture of his baby grandson, Jonah, on his phone.
"Raising your own children, there's nothing like that, but there's something uniquely different about holding the children of your children." —Dan Margolies

Jonah Levi Margolies was born on January 8, just a little over a week into 2020. The year has since become synonymous with hardship, but it started out joyously for the Margolies family.

KCUR Health Editor Dan Margolies, the baby's grandfather, had already welcomed four other grandchildren into the world, but Jonah was the first to be born here, in Kansas City. Margolies got to hold his grandson briefly at the hospital, the day he was born, then he got a more leisurely chance to hold him just twice after that.

"Then the pandemic hit," Margolies explains. "And out of an abundance of caution, we decided to maintain social distance and follow all the protocols that experts suggested we should follow."

Margolies hasn't held his grandson since.

"We see him every day on FaceTime," he says, "and we occasionally see them in person at a social distance, usually on the back deck of our house. But of course it's not the same, not being able to hold him, particularly because we see him hitting developmental milestone after milestone."

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3

In the time they've been apart, little Jonah, now 10 months old, has become a crawler. And he's become increasingly aware of his surroundings, something his grandfather notices watching him play with the family dog on FaceTime.

"They have a large German shepherd mix, her name is Sissy, and her large size belies her absolute gentleness," he says, describing the dog's protectiveness of the baby, even as the baby grabs the dog's fur. Now, Margolies says, the baby reacts to the dog appearing in the room. "He looks up, he gets very excited. So he's beginning to distinguish among objects and among sentient beings in a way that is fantastic to see, you know, the, just the sort of awakening of his little consciousness."

It's still hard to be watching it all on a screen, instead of in person. This while also being unable to travel to visit his other four grandchildren in Pittsburgh, missing a grandchild's Bar Mitzvah, and watching a time lapse video of previous visits again and again.

"It's a powerful mix of emotions that wells up in you when you're holding your own grandchild," Margolies explains. "Raising your own children, there's nothing like that, but there's something uniquely different about holding the children of your children."

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Caroline Campbell has been thinking a lot about her grandparents throughout the pandemic, and one photograph has taken on special meaning.
"Thinking about my grandparents lives, it’s like, they kind of did live through the worst case scenarios." —Caroline Campbell

Back in February, out of the blue, KCUR Volunteer Events Coordinator Caroline Campbell got to thinking about her grandma, who lives at John Knox Village in Lee's Summit, on a floor dedicated to care around memory issues.

"I talked to my mom and said, 'I haven't seen Grandma since Christmas,'" Campbell says, remembering how she asked if she could tag along the next time her mom made the drive. The two ended up visiting Campbell's grandma over a lunch break just days before Kansas City went on lockdown.

"My grandma has dementia and doesn't always recognize who I am," Campbell explains. "It was kind of one of those hit-or-miss days where I was like, 'I don't really know that she knows who I am, but she looks like happy that someone is here to talk to her.'"

It was a rainy day, so the walk they usually took around the premises wasn't an option. Instead, they sat in the common area watching The Music Man on TV. "Grandma was still singing the songs when we went back to her room," Campbell remembers.

Campbell noticed a funny old photograph on her grandma's dresser.

"It's one of those pictures with a lot of family lore around it," Campbell says of the photo of her grandpa in a kilt. As legend has it, her grandfather had served in the U.S. Army during World War II. During a brief stop in Scotland, he'd gotten drunk and apparently posed, in costume, for a portrait. He had no memory of the picture being taken, just the photographic evidence.

Campbell and her mom were laughing about the picture when the conversation took a more serious turn. "My mom was like, 'You know, grandpa was born in 1918, the year of the Spanish Flu. This would have been something that was on people's minds at that time, too."

Before they left, Campbell took a picture of the picture on her phone, and she's looked at it a lot since then. Her grandpa, who died when she was 11 or 12, is someone she remembers as a "goofy guy." The kind of guy who would get drunk in Scotland and put on a kilt. She'd never really thought about everything he'd been through, including the war he was fighting when that picture was taken. He'd lived through several worst-case scenarios. That his spirit remained intact has given her hope in this worst-case scenario.

"Grandpa was born during a pandemic and then he lived through the Depression then served he in a war. Then he came home and met my grandma and had eleven kids and raised a family with, like, not the most money," Campbell says, recounting another family story about subsisting on coffee grounds during times of hunger.

"He still took a weekend to go get really drunk in Scotland and like take a picture in a kilt," Campbell marvels.

And that's what she kept in mind when she celebrated her 30th birthday... in a pandemic. Moved in with her partner... in a pandemic. Enjoyed a snowy day at home... in a pandemic.

"Finding things to celebrate in a very dark, difficult time I think has been one of my coping mechanisms for this," she says.

And she also tries to channel the side of her grandfather she didn't know as well, the guy who signed on to fight for what was right when fascism raged in Europe.

"In the last like six months, I've been like, 'What can I do? What am I doing to help society?'"

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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