This article was originally published in the FAWCO (Federation of Women’s Clubs Overseas) magazine. Inspiring Women Magazine – Summer 2020
“We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day. We’re not scared. Oh no! Grass! Long, wavy grass! We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh, no! We’ve got to go through it. Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy!”
It’s never been my favorite children’s book or song. I know. Call me a Bad Mom. The repetition is good for kids, but it is just the kind of chant that grates on my nerves. Besides. Are swishy and swashy even words? I don’t think so.
But here I am, in a locked-down house in Antwerp, Belgium with three kids – ages ten, eight, and five. It’s a bit like a school break – I’m used to spending school holidays with them. The kitchen is a constant battleground between eating and cleaning. My daughter (the 10-year old) creates her own Lists of Things to Do, while my sons primarily occupy themselves by wrestling with each other on the couch. (Why? Why?) Yet, during the school holidays we have playdates, take trips to the Fine Arts Museum in Gent, or day trips to the Netherlands to visit friends. We head to indoor playgrounds, grab gelato from trucks in city parks, and spend hours browsing the shelves of libraries. Of course, these entertainment options have evaporated into wistful memories during Belgium’s (and World’s) COVID-19 lockdown.
“Cosette! Holden! Brecht! Get your shoes on. We’re going on a walk!” I shout up the stairwell. Silence follows. Or perhaps a shuffling of feet without conviction. Maybe one of them trickles down the stairs. My patience is growing thin. I begin to wonder. . . how do their teachers do it? Then in my moment of weakness, I start to contemplate the future teenage years. Which is not the positive, helpful thinking you need to focus on during CoronaTime. I shake the thoughts. Be. Present.
“Get your shoes on, please,” I repeat, and my children pull on their sneakers. My usual measure of success – Balance a Budget, Conduct a Board Meeting, Connect with FAWCO – has been diminished within the past few weeks. Yet, with eight shoed feet exiting my house before noon, I step into the happy sunshine with a feeling of great achievement.
We moved into a new house the day before the Total Belgium Shut Down. Which meant we were immediately locked into box-filled, omg-where-is-my-toothbrush/sheets/wine-opener, with no-memories house. We felt trapped in a messy AirBnB, but there was a newness and distraction to the experience.
With my husband on a conference call, my children and I head down our unfamiliar street – my gaze toggling between my new neighbors’ houses and my children. My youngest son insists on wearing his Halloween costume whenever we leave the house. It was a simple H&M purchase last October. A bat hoodie. I find it only slightly ironic that my son is dressed as a BAT during our Corona Walks. My middle child sports a pair of my aviator sunglasses which are three times the size of his face. He means business. He brings a pen and paper for documentation purposes. My daughter is the primary Look Out.
I’d seen it on Facebook – articles about placing Teddy Bears in the windows and encouraging others to participate. A friend of mine had rung my doorbell a few days before. She toted her two and three-year old in a double stroller. “Ah yes, we’re counting teddy bears!” she had said from the sidewalk. My internet radio plays NPR from a corner of my kitchen. A Dallas reporter recorded his walk with his children.
My children and I peruse the city streets – avoiding the few bicycles, empty busses, and trams. We explore new cobbles and memorize unfamiliar street names. We gaze into gorgeous windows lined with enchanting Art Nouveau details and count 109 Teddy Bears – my middle child recording each sighting with a tickmark on his pad of paper.
Care Bears stand proudly in windows, their bellies forward in a Care Bear Stare. “Mama, which one is that one?” and I scroll through decades of memories to resurface “Tenderheart Bear! Cheer Bear! Friend Bear!” There are hand-drawn bears, well-loved bears, tiny bears, huge bears, and a chicken. A woman gazes from her window and points to her hidden bear in the corner – tucked behind a frosted glass windowpane. She smiles and we smile back. A human connection between windows. And Teddy Bears.
We return home by snack time. As they munch on crackers, cheese, and apples, I head upstairs to my sons’ bookshelf. Run my fingers across the titles I unpacked a week ago.
“Come on, I want to read y’all a story,” I tell them.
With the three of them nestled on the couch, I begin. “The First Teddy Bear, By Helen Kay.” I read them the book my mother had read to me as a child. I flip the pages and my children learn about the American President, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt and a humble candy store owner in Brooklyn who made toys at night. At a time when the U.S.A. was mocking the President for not shooting a small, cinnamon-colored bear during the Great Bear Hunt of 1902, Morris Michtom, the candy store man, celebrated the President’s compassion. He and his wife stitched a toy bear and asked the President if he’d mind it being named after him. “I cannot imagine what good my name will do,” President Roosevelt wrote, but he didn’t mind. I tell my children, when I was twelve, I went to the Smithsonian Museum to see the very first Teddy Bear.
2020, the year of Coronavirus. We are isolated, scared, and vulnerable. People are sick and dying. The future is unknown. On the subplot, children (and adults alike) are also missing their friends, wanting the comfort of their routine, and craving human connection. Unfortunately, there’s no way around this. “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!” Like the President’s Great Bear Hunt of 1902, we venture into the unknown expecting one thing, but we are finding compassion and comfort instead. Inside that narrow, gloomy cave is a bear. A Teddy Bear. And amid it all, I’ve found a new place in my heart for Bear Hunts.