As Mel McNamara drove from the Victorian mainland over the Phillip Island bridge, her eyes filled with tears.
“My daughter, she asked me why I was crying,” Mel says. “I had to tell her that these are happy tears – I was just so grateful to be by the sea and going to see my family.”
It had been four months since Mel last saw her mother Julie and stepdad Damian, both residents on the island. Victoria’s “ring of steel” had kept them apart, with the threat of a $5,000 fine for any Melburnian who tried to escape the confines of the city.
Mel burst into tears again when she finally saw her mum.
“Just reuniting was overwhelming with emotion. Happiness and sadness that we hadn’t seen each other for so long. Just hugging was amazing,” she says. “We are social creatures, we need that touch connection. Finally seeing them, it just washed away the whole five months of stress.
“There were lots of big cuddles; my son ran and jumped up on Nanna and gave her a fright.”
Julie Eastwood, Mel’s mum, wasn’t subject to the same harsh lockdowns as her Melbourne family but, still, the distance took its toll.
“I like to be actively involved in my grandkid’s lives,” Julie says. “I like to see them and their delightful faces, spend time with them and watch their sports and how they’re going at school.
“I’ve even picked up the kids from school, and it’s always that surprise of ‘Oh here comes Nanna, she’s picking me up’. Sometimes they would have a dispute about which of their bedrooms I’m going to sleep in. It’s all those little things that you miss.”
Julie and Mel have always been close and never go more than two weeks without seeing each other.
“I know some people choose not to see their families … people happily talk to each other on the other side of the world, but it’s really hard when you don’t know it’s going to happen,” Mel says. “We couldn’t plan it, and it was enforced. I think it makes it more difficult.
“Lots of people were talking about how they can’t see their family in the UK or the US. Well, my family was in Bayswater, and I hadn’t seen them for five months either. It’s only an hour and a half down the road.”
‘We have a lot of time to catch up on’
The moment Cody Watts heard rumours that the “ring of steel” might be coming down, he called his boss. “I said, ‘Hey, if this happens on Monday I’m going, I’m out of here.’”
Cody had been separated from two generations of his family – his mother in Ballarat and his son in Shepparton. “I needed those days off, I couldn’t have waited any longer.”
Cody says he missed his two-year-old son Archer immensely but ‘Archie’ suffers from croup, making him vulnerable to the virus. The toddler lives with his mother and her father, who was severely immuno-compromised.
Cody was from one of Melbourne’s most heavily infected local government areas during Covid’s second wave, so the family decided the risk was too high.
“You feel quite trapped … being in Melbourne, it’s really sucky – everyone can agree with that,” he says.
“Archie doesn’t really give a Scooby Doo about FaceTime, he was just doing his own thing, so it was a bit hard in that regard, but we did the best we could. He turned two, which I missed, but then again he missed my birthday as well,” Watts says with a laugh.
“Seeing each other and being able to touch and hug and stuff was really nice – there’s only so much you can do over the phone.”
Cody’s first stop on Monday was in Ballarat to pick up his mum, who had been looking after her elderly parents during the second wave. Together they travelled north to see Archie.
“We had some stuff planned for the day but there was an asthma storm going on,” Cody says. “We decided to just have a nice day inside, caught up, counted some animals, did some numbers and letters. Real cute stuff.
“It just feels like it’s getting back to normal … Now it’s about finding a new routine and getting back on track. We have a lot of time to catch up on.”
‘I thought I was going to spend Christmas alone’
Gale Tuffield’s family was also up in Shepparton, and despite respecting how important the lockdown was, she couldn’t help but imagine ways to sneak past the “ring of steel” to see her adult daughter Rhiannon and stepmum Barbara.
“I really wanted to walk out of Melbourne for Rhiannon’s birthday, I have to be honest. Walk all the way to her,” she says.
“I did get so upset in the end. I thought maybe if enough of us lined up in our cars, we could all get out together. I hate to say it.”
By the end of October, Gale says, she had almost given up hope.
“I wasn’t excited about anything, because I felt like it was never gonna happen. When I heard the initial announcement [of the ‘ring of steel’ being lifted], I felt like crying,” she says. “I was so excited and couldn’t wait to see them.
“The whole lockdown I went on two walks with a friend … I don’t have any pets or anything, so I was just talking to myself the whole time.”
On Wednesday Gale packed her bags, made sure all her work was on her laptop and headed out on the road. She is planning to stay in Shepparton with her daughter for two weeks.
“I’ve been driving to and from Melbourne for 40 years, and it has to be the longest trip I’ve ever had,” she says.
Barbara said it was overwhelming to see her stepdaughter again.
“Well, she was full-on,” she laughs. “She was full of talk and action. It was lovely to hear from her again and catch up with everything that was going on. I’m the quiet type and she is the full-on one, so we complement each other, I suppose.”
Shepparton, one of Victoria’s major regional cities, experienced a scare in October when a Melbourne worker infected with Covid travelled to the area and infected three residents. This sent hundreds of locals into lockdown, and people feared it would cause the government to tighten the “ring of steel”.
“I thought that that might make things a lot longer than it had been because we were all doing so well up here,” says Barbara. “But luckily it didn’t come to anything drastic.”
“I thought I was going to be spending Christmas alone,” Gale says.
For Mel, Julie and the kids, their first day together on Phillip Island was spent picnicking on the beach, bodysurfing the waves and exploring the rockpools.
“Just driving around the island, taking the kids out of school for the day and seeing the family was the best thing that we could have done,” Mel says.
“The kids didn’t come out of the water the whole day,” Julie says, smiling. “It was so emotional and I think it added just extra value to that mother-daughter relationship. It made us appreciate our family a lot more. I think it made us think about the freedom that we take for granted so much in Australia.
“We learnt a valuable lesson. It was a bit of a wake-up call.”