Juggling school, work with family during COVID-19
Posted February 15, 2021 12:01 a.m. EST
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sunlight pours through the windows of the porch door in Nidiya Gaspar’s kitchen as her 71-year-old father uses a mortar and pestle to ground cardamom, ginger and other spices into a fine dust.
Teachers’ voices float downstairs — the children are attending classes one floor above. Lawrence, Nidiya’s husband, takes a work call from the living room couch, one hand holding a phone to his ear and the other typing out an email.
Lourdu Susai, the grandfather, combines the spices and water in a pot, bringing the mixture to a rolling boil, aromatic steam blowing up into his face. Several cups clink together as his wife pulls them down from a cabinet.
With furrowed eyebrows and steady hands, Nidiya adds milk and sugar and pours the tea through a strainer, filling a cup to the brim with classic Indian chai. A staple in Indian households each morning and afternoon, the chai has come to symbolize the collective work the Gaspars do each day to get by in the pandemic.
Together — their ages ranging from 7 to 71 — they’ve found the rhythms of remote school, remote work, and remote worship inside their six-bedroom Matthews home.
The Gaspar family is one of millions of multigenerational households in the United States. In 2016, one in five Americans lived in a house with two or more generations. Asian, Hispanic, and Black households are more likely to be multigenerational.
And pandemic-caused financial strain has only forced more families closer together.
Multigenerational homes face unique circumstances during COVID — older family members are more susceptible to the virus, and families must take stringent measures to protect them.
“We wanted to do what was right for my parents,” Nidiya says. “So we did what we had to.”
FROM CHENNAI TO CHARLOTTE
From the moment guests step into the Gaspars’ home, pictures of the family greet visitors from all angles.
Nila, age 7, smiles up sweetly at her brother Neal, age 10, in many of them, while older photos show Lawrence and Nidiya holding the two children.
The couple came to the United States from Chennai, a city in southern India, two decades ago. They moved to Charlotte three years later, and her parents, Nirmala Michael and Lourdu Susai, immigrated to Charlotte nine years ago to live with their only child. Nila and Neal have nearly never known life without their grandparents.
Nidiya said the international trip she was making once every couple of years to see her parents was difficult — the trip from United States to India usually takes more than 24 hours, including hours-long delays and overnight flights, and it’s expensive.
“I had a lot of worry leaving my parents there. It’s hard to find help, and it was very hard not having them here,” she said. “They were thousands of miles away.”
Before the pandemic, sharing their home with her parents was an adjustment. But last February, Nidiya said everyone in the family made more necessary concessions to protect each other.
THE SILVER LININGS
For Nidiya and Lawrence’s family, coronavirus has become synonymous with the word “compromise.”
When the pandemic first struck, Nidiya first thought of her parents. Knowing they were most vulnerable, the family stopped going to grocery stores and ordered everything online. Even the delivered food was set aside for three days and then wiped down and washed thoroughly. The family used to love eating out a few times a week, but they stopped the practice immediately.
Though some precautions have been relaxed, the Gaspars still spend mostly all their time indoors at their house.
Nidiya has learned to listen to two things at once — one ear trained on her work meetings, the other on her daughter’s school lessons. Nila prefers to work on the floor next to her mother’s desk, where this past week she learned about presidents in reading class. Neal, on the other hand, shares an office with his dad, who is typing away at his keyboard while Neal learns about long division.
And when either of the children make a good grade on a test, they dash downstairs to the kitchen into their grandparents arms, nearly knocking steaming hot cups of turmeric tea, a concoction the family has come to rely on to boost their immune systems, out of their hands.
“Anytime they get a break, they just run downstairs,” Nidiya said. “They want to tell their grandparents about everything.”
Neal and Nila have been forced to stay home from school and continue online learning in an effort to protect their grandparents.
They both attend Union Day Charter School, where parents have been given the option to return to in person learning or continue with virtual instruction. Nidiya said she’s decided to keep them home because the risk of the children becoming carriers of the virus is too high. It’s been difficult for them, and the kids are quick to say that.
“I wanted to see my friends,” 10-year-old Neal said. “At home, I don’t feel happy doing work.”
And, of course, the entire family has had to sacrifice personal space and contact with others for the sake of health. But the pandemic hasn’t been without silver linings, even Neal admits.
“I like them being here,” he said of his grandparents. “They help me a lot.”
Because Nidiya and Lawrence work normal hours, Lourdu and Nirmala have been helping with the kids, and Nidiya said she’s glad her kids get to experience such a close relationship with their grandparents.
And her parents are teaching the kids how to speak Tamil, their native tongue.
“The kids like listening to my parents’ stories and experiences and childhood and hearing about their great grandparents,” Nidiya said. “It’s teaching them to be more family-oriented.”
It’s more common in other cultures for parents to live with their children after they’ve become adults. Though Nidiya didn’t grow up in a household with her own grandparents, they visited often. It made an impact on her, so she’s grateful her kids can experience that, she said.
“Weighing the pros and cons, the pros are high,” Nidiya said. “They’re here for me when I need them, and I’m here for them, too.”
Though they couldn’t have imagined living in such close quarters with her parents when they first moved in, Nidiya said it’s been an unexpected advantage being able to protect them. Some of her friends who live here have lost their parents in India, and they’ve even been unable to attend their funerals.
“I couldn’t imagine being in that type of situation,” she said.
The family is unsure of how they’ll handle vaccinations. Though both of her parents are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, they’ve decided against it for now. Minority distrust of vaccinations runs deep, but Nidiya said they’ll keep reevaluating.
Nidiya says despite the challenges, the pandemic has brought the family closer together.
“My parents have only one child and two grandchildren, so they’re very happy,” she said. “It’s a true blessing to have them here.”
And the family makes sure to give thanks for every blessing they receive these days.
For Nidiya’s parents, the past year has meant giving up going to church every week, a vital part of their life. So the family has adopted a new tradition.
Every day, as the sun goes down, the family slowly inches into the connected kitchen and living space, gathering on the couch, watching television and playing board games. Triple washed produce and other delivered food is turned into delicacies like dosas, a traditional South Indian dish similar to crepes and made with rice, spices and lentils, and the family gathers at their dining table to enjoy them.
Before they indulge, they pray.
Above them on the wall is a sign that reads, “For the Lord is good, and his love endures forever,” from Psalms.
“Me and my husband and my kids, we think more about my parents’ comfort and health in anything we plan. In turn, they always think about our comfort and happiness,” Nidiya said.
“It’s a true blessing to have everyone in the house. We take care of each other.”