I was supposed to be in San Antonio, Texas today for the giant AWP writer’s conference, but so many writers, editors and publishers cancelled due to the coronavirus fears that I decided not to go. It no longer seemed worth the time and effort. Judging by the photos published this morning of empty spaces where thousands of wordsmiths would normally be, I’m sure I made the right choice.
I made this decision on the road to the Portland airport, where I had a hotel reserved for their “park and fly” program. I was already on the fence when the friend in Texas I had planned to visit called to tell me not to come. That cinched it. Not going to Texas, but I already had a room in Portland. Might as well spend the night there, right? I had a house/dogsitter taking care of Annie. I had scheduled the week away from all my usual activities. Instead of seeing San Antonio, I would create a vacation right here in Oregon. I would read, write, shop, and visit local attractions.
The Grotto in Portland was beautiful and inspiring as usual. It’s a Catholic shrine and botanical garden full of statues commemorating the lives of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, with a meditation chapel, a church, and a gift shop. No kids, just adults seeking spiritual connections. There was one bump: a plaque on the path to the meditation chapel extols the glories of motherhood. Even here, I thought. But it’s a Catholic place; of course moms are honored. In the gift shop, I saw many books about being a parent, not one about not being a parent, unless you count the biographies of the various saints. I’m pretty sure a lot of the martyrs never had a chance to have children.
Sad, but then again, I was glad not to be Mary and watch my son die nailed to a cross.
It wasn’t until I got to Salem that I became fully aware of how different life is in my Oregon coast town where the average age is well past menopause. Suddenly I was surrounded by young people and their kids. At lunch, a mom sat at the table next to me with six kids. She did a good job of keeping them under control. I watched her show her son how to eat his massive German pancake and felt a little twinge as I ate my BLT alone. I’ll never be surrounded by kids who look like me and whom I can teach everything I know.
Salem, an hour south of Portland, has a wonderful waterfront park that includes miles of walking paths along the Willamette River, plus a playground and a carousel. I watched a father walking with his tiny daughter, so cute. I watched a teenage couple holding hands. I smiled at a guy playing bongo drums. All good, but at the playground, I felt like an outsider. There were all those young moms and all those kids, and it was like I came from foreign country. I had never been part of that group, never would be.
When I was their age, I was a newspaper reporter, walking around in a blazer, carrying a notebook and a camera, watching, never part of the group. I was never the mom pushing her child on the swing. I thought about taking a picture, but these days you can’t take photos of a stranger’s kids without the parents thinking you’re a stalker. I walked past them like a ghost and continued past the indoor carousel, where I didn’t feel the right to go inside since I had no children and I didn’t want to ride the horses myself.
It was still beautiful out there. I had a lovely solo dinner in the hotel restaurant where I watched a group of young men order beers two at a time. No kids. But I still felt the loss. If only . . .
Now, I know if I had children with me, I’d be staying someplace cheaper, if I could afford to travel with them at all, and we’d be eating at the greasy spoon across the street, but there’s no avoiding the feeling of being left out, of having missed something. At home, with most of my friends older than I am, I can avoid it more than you probably can wherever you live. Do you see women with baby bumps wherever you go? Are there parents and little kids everywhere? That makes it ever so much harder.
Is it some kind of blessing that we don’t have kids to worry about during this coronavirus scare? The parents I know always seem to have colds they caught from their kids. Are we safer because of our childless status? Would we rather have the sniffles than be childless?
I’m rambling. I need to get my hotel breakfast before I plunge back into the world of parents and children. Stay well.