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Surprise from 6 feet away: Visiting relatives in Madisonville, Kentucky

We had homemade cakes, cookies and signs, plus seven bouquets of tulips.

Our family, minus my dad and our dog, piled into the minivan that my sister calls the spaceship and headed to Madisonville, Kentucky, to socially distance surprise many of our relatives.

The plan was for my three siblings and I to sneak into each front yard, dessert and sign and bouquet in hand, and either call or ring the doorbell. We planned as precisely as we could to avoid ruining our own surprise before we were ready.

There was only one detail we couldn’t plan ahead— where to use the bathroom throughout the day because we didn’t want to go in anyone’s house. We made do with gas stations, Sonic and a lot of hand sanitizer.

The road trip got us out of our house, but we ended up spending most of the day in the car— which, my sister Ashtyn rightly pointed out, is a lot fewer square feet than a house.

But the time we spent with family— in our grandma’s front yard, on the curb in front of the pharmacy where my aunt works— was worth the hours of driving, from Bowling Green to Madisonville and then all over town.

I’m not a photographer, but I kept my mom’s Canon around my neck all day, hoping to capture surprised looks on our loved ones’ faces.

I got those faces, and I got tears as we stood outside our great-grandparents’ house for the first time since our great-grandfather died in January, and I got my sister and brother arguing about the proper way to wear a face mask.

I got a record of how we spent April 10, 2020, the circumstances of which would have seemed unthinkable and bizarre just two months ago.

"You guys are gonna get in jail," Memaw said when she saw us through her storm door. Her surprises a strawberry cake, pink tulips, a puzzle, a copy of KRNL Lifestyle + Fashion's spring magazine, and a card were the most color-coordinated. "My hair's a mess, I don't need pictures," said my mother's mother, who normally gets her hair done once a week and has to wash her hair herself these days.

Before we left, Memaw hugged herself, and we pretended we could hug each other. "Wish we could hide Easter eggs," she said. "I've got them all ready." We typically spend Easter gathered at her house, which isn't possible this year.

We knew from the start we couldn't pull off surprising Mamarie, who likes to watch the street happenings out her window. We were right: She opened the front door because she saw "a dark-haired girl" out front and wondered who it was. It was my sister Ashtyn, leaning over the railing to put her gifts on the porch.

We all tried oatmeal cinnamon cookies made by Mamarie, who can't make anything without forcing her "babies" to try it. Thankfully, everything she makes is good, especially her mac and cheese. That's the downside of surprising her: If she had known we were coming, she would've had a to-go container ready.

I sent Mamarie these flowers in March, and she's kept them because they dried pretty. Even before quarantine began, she mostly stayed home— she has never gotten her driver's license. But since January, when my great-grandfather and her husband of 70 years died, she's been home alone.

As we stood on the curb outside Clay Drug Store in Webster County, I called the number that lets the employees know that someone is outside, ready to pick up a prescription. I asked if Carole Puryear— a pharmacist and our aunt that we call KK— could come outside. Before she stopped to talk to us— through a brightly patterned mask— she delivered a prescription to a woman across the street.

At 2 or so in the afternoon, Grandbob and Laurie were still— or back— in their pajamas. Laurie had made a grocery run that morning; the day before, they had delivered groceries to Mamarie, Grandbob's mother. "This made my day," Laurie said of our surprise, including— her words— the delicious cookies.

Before Gram had fully opened her front door, I heard her say, "Oh my gosh!" Once we had given her our gifts, she said she had things for us too— Easter baskets and souvenirs from her trip to Europe in February. Only she would be so prepared during a surprise visit. "If I had known you were coming, I'd have asked you to bring me some books," she said. Memaw had said the same thing, making it clear that I am my grandmothers' true granddaughter.


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