A Year Without Ollie

By Lee Mylne

In mid-March 2020, I was in Melbourne, combining some work with the chance to spend precious time with my grandson Oliver and his parents.

At the end of the week, my daughter Sophie (with Ollie asleep in his car seat) dropped me at Melbourne airport for my flight home to Brisbane.

As I made my way to the departure gate, I sent her a photo of the empty terminal building, not a soul in sight along usually crowded gate lounges. “Wow!” she replied. “So eerie.”

It was the last time I would see my first-born and my only grandchild for a year.

As state borders closed, our world changed. Sophie and her partner Liam had already had the call from their respective workplaces, telling them they would now work from home for the foreseeable future.

They faced that challenge to adapt while juggling caring for and entertaining an 18-month-old.

As Melbourne’s Covid-19 crisis worsened, childcare centres closed, re-opened and closed again. Uncertainty was the new normal.

In Brisbane, I was facing my own challenges. My part-time job tutoring in journalism at the University of Queensland, which I had held for eight years, disappeared at the end of May.

Contracts for semester one had been honoured, but the need for casual tutors was reduced as online classes were already the norm and enrolments dropped, in part due to the lack of international students.

Tutoring work had provided a regular cash flow to support my freelance journalism, and now both income streams had disappeared. International and domestic travel was frozen and like other travel writers, I was grounded.

My concern for the future of my chosen career path was coupled with enforced isolation from most of my extended family.

Melbourne suddenly seemed far away, but the most vulnerable members of my immediate family were even further, in New Zealand.

Plans to cross ‘the ditch’ in July for my uncle’s 90 th birthday were scuttled by a ban on trans-Tasman travel, and I could only wonder when I would see him, or my 91-year-old mother, again.

And I was missing these precious, irreplaceable chances to see Ollie as he changed from a toddler to a boy.

When would I hold that chubby little hand again, or feel the brush of his soft hair against my face?

Facetime became our friend, but Ollie wasn’t keen on the camera.

Photos and videos arrived regularly, the jangle of my phone becoming known as “an Ollie ping”.

Here’s Ollie… starting to talk in short sentences (“Bye bye, see you soon!”), learning to count, in the bath, eating spaghetti, playing with his new rugby ball, watching the rubbish truck pass by, nose pressed against the window.

And sadly, here’s Ollie crying “No! No!” as his Mama Bear dons a mandatory mask, hiding her face from him.

He’ll get used to it, of course, but at first it’s scary. What’s going through his little mind?

Winter drags by. Here’s Ollie again, triumphantly scaling the bars of his cot, reading a book
about animals, identifying each one and making their sounds: “Quack, moo, neigh, hiss,
woof, meow, roooaar!” So clever! Here’s Ollie hiding in a cupboard, with a truck.

In September, Ollie turned two. The day before, on video, his Mama asked him “How old are you tomorrow?” and we laugh as his clear and confident reply comes “Four!”. “FOUR!? No, TWO,” says Sophie. “FOUR!” shouts Ollie, laughing into the camera.

On the day of his birthday, the Victorian government re-opens playgrounds. “No child in Melbourne is more happy!” texts Sophie.

Ollie loves trucks and his auntie Jess steals the show by posting a giant yellow truck from Brisbane to Melbourne: “Wow!” says Ollie, eyes wide.

His parents buy him a little scooter and helmet and videos arrive of Ollie scooting down a gentle hill, a mix of glee and trepidation.

He’s talking more now, too, and I’m thrilled he seems to know who I am – “Nana!”

I send him books and am rewarded with a video of him reading. “Bluey!” he says, pointing at the pages. “Bluey and Mama.”

Work has picked up a little for me by now. I’m lucky to get assignments within Queensland, and this travel is a welcome distraction.

I’ve kept busy over the intervening months by working on my doctoral thesis, my studies now in their fourth year and nearly reaching a conclusion.

While I’ve used my time productively, I hope, it’s my rapidly depleting savings and the federal government’s JobKeeper program that has kept the wolf from the door and the mortgage payments on track.

The best gift of the year arrives in the post in late October.

It’s a painting on a small canvas, an Ollie original, one of four created – one for each grandparent – as a diversion during the long Melbourne lockdown.

It’s an abstract swirl of pink and yellow and brown, with splashes of green and blue. I love it. It deserves (and gets) a frame!

By November, Ollie’s restricted life is also coming to an end as Melbourne’s strict lockdown ends after 16 weeks.

Here’s Ollie at the beach, out for lunch with Mama and Daddy.

Here he is, joyously dancing to the Wiggles on TV. Oh, and here’s Ollie tucked up in his new “big bed”, those pesky cots bars now a thing of babyhood past.

He’s growing fast, and I’m missing it all.

Christmas is coming: Ollie’s helping to decorate the tree.

We’re not sure if state borders will be open. Melbourne’s ongoing battle against Covid-19 outbreaks continues to mean any thoughts of a reunion might be premature.

We wait it out, and finally the borders between all Australian states open in early December.

Despite that, we celebrate Christmas apart.

Before New Year, state borders have slammed shut again and we’re glad we hadn’t rushed into travelling while everything is still so uncertain.

In early January, Sophie and Liam deliver good news: they’ve booked tickets to Brisbane for March – just in time to deliver the best birthday present I could wish for.

Come on, Ollie, I’m waiting with arms wide open.

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