Columnist

Beth Dolinar has been writing her column about life, both hers and the rest of ours, for over 20 years. When not on the page, she produces Emmy-winning documentaries, teaches writing to university students, and enjoys her two growing children.

My friend Dana starts most days reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. And after that, she sings the “Days of the Week” song.

Patriotic and musical though she may be, Dana is not regressing into childhood. She’s pledging and singing into her phone’s FaceTime screen. At the other end of the call is her granddaughter.

Gianna is 5. At the start of the pandemic her preschool shut down. With her older brother doing virtual first grade, and with two parents busy working at home, Gianna needed some structure in the morning. And that’s when Dana began morning school.

“She calls me Grandma Teacher,” said Dana. “We call it ABC school.”

Most mornings at 8:15, Dana opens FaceTime; Gianna is waiting for her. For two hours, grandmother and grandchild leapfrog across the miles and the generations to connect. After the Pledge and the song, there are the kinds of activities Gianna would be doing in a regular preschool: letter of the day, rhyming games, coloring, counting games, singing songs.

“And we play together a lot,” said Dana. “I believe playing is an important way of learning.”

Dana knows this, having been a parochial school secretary for 30 years. When the pandemic dug in last summer, she retired. It didn’t take long before she was back at the school routine, this time from home and with an enviable teacher-student ratio of 1-to-1. At night, Dana prepares the lessons for the next day; she hand prints simple reading activities and downloads pages for coloring. Her husband, Tim, delivers the packet of papers to Gianna’s house on his way to work each morning. It’s keeping Gianna on track with early learning, and perhaps more important, it’s time spent together.

But it’s not the same as really being with each other.

“I’m the kind of grandma with flour in the house – not for baking, but to make play dough. We play with glitter,” she said.

“It’s killing me not to be able to have the grandkids here and playing.”

While she treasures the hours she spends in preschool with Gianna, Dana says the experience has enhanced her admiration of teachers who spend every day managing remote classrooms full of children who learn better in person. Sometimes Gianna will grow restless and carry the phone to another room. There they’ll play kitchen, or dolls.

The routine is one of the many life-affirming parts of this strange year.

“I just wanted to be helpful,” she said. “God bless the parents at home trying to keep the young ones occupied.”

We all are struggling with the emptiness of the holidays, being physically cut off from our parents and children, our friends and our co-workers. As I write this, I’ve got one child in Georgia and the other in California. I’m hoping I’ll get to see at least one of them in person for Christmas, even at a distance. I’m picturing a chat across a picnic table.

For now, my kids and I FaceTime about once a week for 15 minutes or so. I would love two hours a day, but they are busy adults. And they already know their alphabet.

But what a gift my friend’s ABC school is, on both sides of the screen. Someday soon, we’ll look back at how we managed to stay connected this year. We should be proud of how creative we were, how we found ways to keep moving forward.

Gianna may not remember much about the pandemic, but Grandma Teacher knows their mornings together will have meant something.

“I just hope Gianna remembers how we laughed,” she said, “and how we played.”

Beth Dolinar can be reached at cootiej@aol.com/.

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