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Two Canadian Seniors Visit California
... while a pandemic ebbs and flows

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Heather and I seem to have cornered the market on grandchildren.  We have them ranging from thirty years old, right down to a little guy who is not yet two.

We have warm, and frequent, interactions with many of our grandchildren.  But – while phone and video calls are possible with the older ones – babies and toddlers need a little help... especially those who are younger than 2, who don’t have any idea who those grey-haired people are, making noises through Mama’s phone!

Grandparents need a direct, physical, and cuddly relationship with the littlest ones.  But, from March 2020 until last month, we couldn’t....  Why?  because of the pandemic.

Weston, our youngest grandchild, was born less than two years ago.  He lives in California.  We were there for his birth, and we saw, and held him once more, when he was four months old, and his parents had brought him to Winnipeg to be baptized in our parish church.  But that was it.  The pandemic hit.  Travel within Canada was curtailed, and, on March 20, 2020, the border with the U.S. was closed altogether (except for essentials, like food).  A year of texts and video calls began, but Weston could not be expected to recognize much, if anything, about these grandparents of his.  His big sister, Annabelle – in 2020 she turned 3 – interacted with us on video calls pretty well, but not Weston.

Time passed.  The pandemic came in waves.  Then, early this year, vaccines began to be available.  I got my first shot on March 28, 2021 (on Palm Sunday, no less!), and Heather got hers a week later, on April 4 – Easter Day!  I enjoy the symbolic connection with Resurrection – for it felt like a return to life!

By the end of June, we were both fully vaccinated. 1  Our home Province, Manitoba, was issuing a proof-of-vaccination card – I had mine, and Heather’s was on order.  So, I began to do some research about the possibility of vaccinated Canadians travelling to the U.S.A. to see grandkids.

I contacted the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, by email, and got this reply:

“You can enter the US by air from Canada, but you cannot enter by land at this time.... The US does not have the same exceptions for family as Canada, and there are no current exemptions for people who have been vaccinated....  The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) requires a negative COVID test or proof of recovery from a COVID 19 infection to enter the US by air.”

Peculiar, don’t you think?  Canadians could enter the U.S. by air, but not by car, and vaccination status didn’t matter.

But, a negative COVID test was required.

A little more research uncovered this: The negative COVID test had to be less than 72 hours old.  This was worrisome, given my experience last October when my test results took more than a week to come in.  But, even worse, I discovered that Manitoba’s Public Health would not administer a COVID test, unless the person receiving it had COVID symptoms, or intended to travel to isolated Northern First Nation communities.  A trip to the U.S. to see grandkids?  Forget it!  We would have to pay a private clinic for our test.  I found a couple of places that offered such tests, and they guaranteed the results within one day, but the price was C$250 per person.  Hmmmm.

In the end, despite this bit of sticker shock, we made plans to get tested and go to California.  As you may know, our daughter Rachael (Weston and Annabelle’s mother), is an Air Canada flight attendant, and so we, her parents, may fly on her staff pass, quite inexpensively.  Rachael, who really wanted us to come, booked us on a pair of flights – Winnipeg to Vancouver; Vancouver to San Francisco – scheduled for July 9.

The visit happens

Obviously, given the title of this blog entry, we made the trip successfully, and spent almost an entire month doing what grandparents do:
  • we helped around the house;
  • we read books, played with toys, and went to playgrounds with the childen;
  • and we babysat.
The trip, there and back, was an adventure in itself, and I will describe it towards the end of this entry, but first, let’s look at some of the highlights of the visit:

Little Annabelle has just turned four, but she is a curious, and very bright young thing.  One day, she was cuddling up to Heather, and said, “Nana, when I grow up, I want to be a lawyer, just like you and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.”

Heather’s jaw dropped to the floor.  How on earth did this child know about the famous U.S. Supreme Court justice?  Well, apparently, she had been given a children’s book that told Ginsberg’s story in simple terms (“she wanted everybody to be treated equally and fairly”).  Heather tried to explain that she herself wasn’t on a level with Ginsberg, but being a lawyer was a wonderful ambition.

Another delightful interaction with Annabelle went this way: It involved another book, one that Heather had bought, thinking that it might speak to Weston on his level.  But Annabelle wanted Heather to read it to her, so Heather began.  “Here is the big sheep, and here is the little sheep, but where is the green sheep?” (page turn) “Here is the red sheep, and here is the blue sheep, but where is the green sheep?”  Each page would end with the same question, “But, where is the green sheep?”.  Finally, around the eighth time that it was asked, the four-year-old said, emphatically: “I  have  no  idea!”

Her brother, Weston, will turn two in September.  He can walk, and climb up on things, and understands a surprising amount of what is said to him, but his speech is somewhat incomprehensible.  He will talk or sing to himself endlessly, while playing with cars or blocks or toy trains, or holding a book in his hands as if to read it.  But not a word of this monologue resembles English.

Occasionally, he will say something that we can understand.  For instance, he will say, “crakshues a buddie,” which is a request for his favourite snack: crackers and peanut butter.

And he tells jokes.  Somehow he got the idea that “knock-knock” jokes are extremely funny.  So he would look at you, and say “Nah-nah!” to which you are expected to reply, “Who’s there?”  At which point he would burst into fake laughter, without giving a punch line of any kind.  However, just before we left, we heard this: “Nah-nah!”  “Who’s there?” said his Nana.  “crakshues a buddie! ha ha ha ha!”  So there’s that.

One day, during our visit, an ice cream truck came to a nearby playground, and Michael, the children’s father, took them to it, for an ice cream treat.  It turned out that the truck was part of an “open house” for a zip-line and “tree top adventure” project, and there was quite a crowd.  Music was playing.  Both Annabelle and Weston spontaneously began to dance, and Michael got out his phone to record a video of them.  As Weston bounced around in time to the music, Michael shouted, “Dance, Weston!  Dance!” and this call became part of the video, which was sent, via text, to the rest of us.

Later, when I was looking after Weston (his mother was giving a piano lesson, and could not be disturbed), I tried to distract him.  So I said, “Weston, look at this video of you!”  He looked, and when he heard his father’s voice saying “Dance, Weston!” he began to dance, right there beside me.  Then, when the video stopped, he said, very clearly, “Again!?”

“Do you want me to play the video again, Weston?”  He grinned and nodded his head.  So I played it.

I cannot tell you haw many times, over the next few days, I was required to replay that video!  Weston would come up to me and say “Dance?”  I would play the video, and he would begin to dance when his father’s voice came on, and at the conclusion of the video, he would say “Again!?”  He would repeat this process incessantly.

Annabelle in water, with fist raised in triumph
Annabelle accomplishes a goal in swimming
(note the COVID-compliant mask on the swim coach!)

Both Annabelle and Weston, are enrolled in programmes that give them some life-skills, and allow them to see, and interact with, children their own age.  With respect to the pademic, the programmes are done safely, as far as I can tell, and they counteract that huge negative consequence of COVID: whereby small children don’t have a chance to learn how to relate to their peers.

Thus there were many occasions when the children would go to swimming, or dance.  During our visit, Annabelle moved up a level in swimming – and can float on her back, or front, and dive, fetching objects from well below the surface.  I just love this picture of her, raising her fist in triumph.

Rachael has long been anxious for us to come to California – not only for the family bonding, but specifically for the babysitting.  She knew that, once her employer, Air Canada, began to call staff back to work, she would have to go to Toronto to re-establish her flight attendant credentials.  As well, she had some other in-person business to do in this country.  So she was planning to have about a week in Canada, while her parents looked after the children.  As for Michael, from the beginning of the pandemic he had been working from home, but there was to be an “in-person” business trip that he was required to do.  Obviously, our presence would be very helpful.  We were not only wanted; we were needed.

After we arrived, there was an extended time in which we were all together, during which Heather and I familiarized ourselves with the house and the kids’ routines.  Then Rachael left for Canada.  Michael remained with us for a while, then he, too, departed, and we were entirely on our own with the children for a couple of days.  Then Rachael returned.  Our time with sole responsibility for the two little ones was, therefore, comparatively brief, and we are just glad that we could be of assistance.

We noticed, however, something that happens in many families:  Throughout our stay, and especially when we were on our own with them, the children were, for the most part, sweet and well-behaved for us, whereas they were often little whining crying things for their parents!  But I ended up saying, “God, in his wisdom, arranged creation such that eighty-year olds cannot have babies, and it’s a good thing!”  The constant presence of active, energetic toddlers – even when they were being delightful – was extremely exhausting.  It’s taken me the past week to recover.

We did have one very nice change of pace:  Over the past couple of years, I’ve become long-distance friends with Michael’s uncle, and, one day, Heather and I were able to borrow the family car and drive 122 kilometres, to have lunch and spend the afternoon with him and his wife.  It was an extremely pleasant diversion!

On our last day in California, we had another interesting diversion – this time with the children.  We all drove 135 kilometres to San Francisco and went to the Exploratorium, a fascinating, and child-oriented, museum of physics and technology.  Weston and Annabelle love the place – indeed, Annabelle told her mother that we had to be taken there as part of our visit!  Annabelle and Weston happily make electronic sounds, watch as light refracts to make various rainbow colours, and numerous other displays demonstrating momentum, force, heat, sound, optics, and even some biology (I watched a man dissect a cow’s eyeball, showing us its component elements!).  Finally, after two hours exploring these fascinating things with our grandchildren, we said goodbye.  They returned to their home in West Sacramento, and Heather and I went on to the airport, and eventually home.

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Travel in a pandemic.

Most of the foregoing, while fun to remember and describe, is completely normal.  Quality time with grandchildren is what every grandparent in the world, since the dawn of time, longs for, and celebrates when it happens.  What made this occasion unique is the pandemic.

Some say “getting there is half the fun,” but in this case, travel there and back was anything but “fun.”  I’ve already mentioned the high cost of getting our COVID tests before departure, and the fact that we were forbidden to cross the border by car.  But there was much more.

The first leg of the trip went well enough.  We were taken to the airport by our good friend, Richard Rosin. 2  Checking our baggage, and boarding the aircraft, went smoothly, and in due course we landed at Vancouver International airport.

Canadian airports which provide flights to and from the U.S., have sealed-off areas for travel to U.S. destinations.  You must pass through U.S. Customs to enter those areas, and pass through Canadian Customs to leave them.  In effect, that part of the airport is U.S.A. territory.  It used to be that if you are changing planes, and check your luggage through to a U.S. destination, and if, for whatever reason, you miss your U.S.-bound flight, the luggage would go to your final U.S. destination, and wait for you.  But, not now.  Check your luggage, go through U.S. Customs with your carry-on baggage, and head for the appropriate gate for your plane.  And... if, for whatever reason, you miss your plane, you now must go back “into Canada,” retrieve your luggage, and check it through on the next flight, after which you are obliged to once more go through U.S. Customs.

As people who travel on our daughter’s “pass,” we travel “standby,” and frequently find that the flight we want is full, and we are therefore “bumped” on to the next flight that’s going to our destination.  We used to never worry about our checked baggage; the gate attendant would simply register us for the next available flight, and we would just wait the necessary hours, then board, and be on our way.

On this trip to California, we were in the Vancouver airport, through U.S. Customs, and at the boarding gate, when we found ourselves unable to board our chosen flight to San Francisco.  But we had no idea of the complex procedure that faced people in our situation.  Apparently it was introduced in response to the pandemic, though we cannot figure out why.  We had to go all the way back through Canadian customs, retrieve our bags, and begin the process of checking them through to San Francisco once more, and re-entering U.S. Customs.  What made it worse was the fact that Heather has bad knees and a lot of leg pain, and the distance from the U.S. departure gate back to the Canadian check-in desks was so considerable, that I ended up having to push her in a wheelchair.

The U.S. Customs agents (whom we saw twice), proved to be uninterested in our vaccination status, and only wanted our [very expensive] COVID-negative certificate.  While we had in our possession a letter from Rachael, addressed to them, saying that, due to her work, it was “essential” that we be allowed to come and look after her children, they did not ask to see it.

Returning to Canada was no simpler.  First, we were once again required to get proof of being COVID-negative within 72 hours of our flight.  There was a drive-through place which charged us US$120 each for our tests.3  When we went, there was some technological hiccup, and we waited over an hour to be tested.  But the results came through in good time.

The U.S. was experiencing high numbers of air travellers, and at check-in there were insufficient agents.  Thus, we found ourselves waiting forever in line.  Eventually, we boarded our plane, and after a couple of hours flying over smoke-covered California, Oregon, and Washington, we landed in smoke-covered Vancouver.

First, Canada Customs.  When we got off the plane, an airport staff member noticed Heather limping, and offered to get one of those golf-cart type vehicles to drive her to, and through, Customs.  This proved to be providential, because, not only was there a great distance involved (see above), there was an enormous wait at the Customs gate.  We saw hundreds of other passengers, and uniformed flight crews, waiting, and waiting, and waiting.  Again, it may have been understaffing, but there was likely to be a customs-agent strike the next day, and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe working-to-rule had already begun.

Customs line-ups may not be attributable to the pandemic, but the next step certainly was!

We were required to get COVID-test #3.  It was not enough that we had tested negative just 48 hours earlier.  At least this test would be free of charge!  So we entered a line, and waited.  Well over an hour.  But eventually we got the swab up the nose, and were able to go on to our hotel (on this trip we knew we had to overnight in Vancouver, before continuing on to Winnipeg, and had planned for it).

We had arranged for an airport-oriented hotel with a shuttle service.  What we didn’t know was that the hotel we had chosen was one designated by the government of Canada for enforced quarantine.  People were required to stay in their rooms for three days – and all meals would be left in bags at their door.  There would be no direct contact with heavily-masked and hazmat-covered staff!

The front desk was so unused to regular clients that they didn’t know what to do with us, at first.  This was the one occasion when our fully-vaccinated status worked in our favour.  Canada permitted us, as arriving air passengers, to move about freely.  Anyway, the staff gave us a free dinner, since they had enough and to spare.  It was a tasty stir-fry.

The next morning, we caught the shuttle back to the airport.  Which is when the worst thing happened:  The shuttle was jammed with passengers and luggage.  Heather was squeezed in, near to the van’s side door.  At the airport, when the driver opened it, she couldn’t adjust herself in order to get out.  I was still trying to get out of the door beside me, when some men tried to help my wife, and she twisted her leg and her back so badly that she is still in pain a week later!

Shortly after this unfortunate mishap, and while we were still in the Vancouver airport, waiting, in a long, zig-zag line, to go through Security, one of the nicest things happened: we had just entered the queue, when a young couple came in behind us, all out of breath.  We commented on their apparent sense of hurry, and learned that they had missed their flight to Kelowna, and had just undergone the “leave security and re-check your baggage” protocol that had so disrupted us on our way to the U.S.  And their second flight was almost ready to board!  We said, “Go ahead of us, then!”  But, people in the next leg of the line heard this, and said, “Go ahead of us, too!”  And the next leg of the line repeated the gesture.  The couple was moved immediately by dozens of kindly people right to the front of the line!  Both Heather and I muttered, “Welcome to Canada!”

But, at the last minute, and for purely technical reasons, the plane that we were to take, from Vancouver to Winnipeg, was declared unsuitable for flying, and we had to wait more than an hour for its replacement to be brought in.  But the ensuing flight was smooth, and without incident.  We were met at the airport by our good friend, Mary Schulz, who also provided us with a substantial “care package” of food, so we didn’t have to shop before going home.

The last pandemic indignity of this trip is this: the Government of Canada tells people who are planning to come from outside the country, to get a cellphone application called “ArriveCan.”  The potential traveller is supposed to fill it out with passport and contact information, proof of COVID-negative status, and vaccine status.  I dutifully filled it out, and submitted it.

But, once that’s done, the application warns you that you must quarantine, and submit, on the app, a daily report of your health symptoms.  But wait!?  We left the country when it was officially declared that fully vaccinated Canadians returning to the country would not have to quarantine!!!  The ArriveCan application, however, has not been updated to know such a thing.  Every day since we landed, I have received a notice which says, in effect, “Stay quarantined, and report your symptoms every day, or you’ll be in big trouble!”  Okay, they don’t use such language, but that is the intent and tone of these daily messages.  I have visited and stored a Government web page which says – and this is an exact quote: “You may receive daily notifications and/or emails about quarantine and Day-8 testing....  If you qualify for the quarantine and testing exemptions, you may ignore these notifications.”  So, since I’m fully-vaccinated and am thrice found to be COVID-negative, I’m ignoring them.  But it’s annoying.

I’ll close this story with my favourite picture: on the day we arrived in West Sacramento, Rachael and Michael had put a huge banner over their front door, welcoming us.  When we saw it, we both started to cry.  “Welcome, Nana and Grandad!  18 months was far too long – We have missed you so much!”  And we miss them, already, even just a week after getting home.

Tony and Heather, with grandchildren, under a large welcome sign
The Welcome Sign
(Weston is staring up at Nana, as if to say, “Who are you?”)

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from Dorothy Y., Saturday, August 14, 2021 10:48 PM CDT (CA)

Loved this blog about your recent adventures.  You have a great flair for writing.  Hope Heather is feeling better soon. Be thankful you didn’t have to change planes in Calgary as we did recently.  They don’t allow the [electric passenger] carts!  We walked from a gate at one end of the airport, to the other, to get on our connecting flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver.  Coming home is always a good thing, but, I know you left part of yourselves behind in California with your family. ❤️
Thanks, Dorothy, for the compliment on my writing. Heather has functioned pretty normally since we got home. — Tony

from Norma P., Tuesday, August 17, 2021 10:31:22 PM CDT (CA)

Hi Tony and Heather,
I just saw this.  I am so glad you were able to get to the little grandchildren, in spite of all your travails.  They look so cute... and Grandad and Nana are looking great too!  The memories last a lifetime.

from Margaret O., Wednesday, August 18, 2021 12:56:40 PM CDT (CA)

Your trip sounds like a mixed bag.  It’s wonderful that you had such a great visit with your California family and got to know Weston, but your travel experiences sound extremely difficult.  This Covid pandemic has changed the entire world!  I hope that Heather is recovering and that you are both resting up.  Your blog is most interesting and the grandchildren sound fascinating!

See my reply to Dorothy Y., above. — Tony


1  For the curious, we both received the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine.
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2  Richard is “Winnipeg’s Friendliest Undertaker.”  If you live in, or near Winnipeg, go to him if there is a death in the family; he’ll treat you well.
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2  All in all, our COVID tests, going and returning, cost us a total, after currency exchange, of $871.53!!!
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