In Memory

Door County, WI: Sunsets are earlier. Black-eyed Susan dominates gardens as hydrangea fade. Squirrels fearlessly dart across sidewalks, decks and paths to grab early acorns. Field mice and chipmunks are in the same race for food stores.

Trees are beginning to change. Yellowing leaves increase in numbers each day. Kids still run on beaches and play wherever a swing set is not closed. Young people gather with cases of beer, many without masks. More cautious folks crowd outdoor dining places. Multi-generational families wander about as if it were August 1, not September 1. COVID has changed the normal rhythms of summer while Mother Nature delivers heat and humidity where houses didn’t need air conditioning ten years earlier. Lake Michigan pushes beyond its all-time high water mark, devouring docks and houses’ front yards.

When it already feels as if the stars are out of synch, COVID has taken the fathers of three friends or relatives. Three members of the Greatest Generation, living in three different states, in congregate facilities for three very different reasons. Friends and family called them Jim, Dom, and Marlin. They had eleven adult children among them plus almost four dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Two were veterans and one farmed his entire life. Family photos show them joking with great, tall grandsons, sitting with the newest grandbaby resting on an arm, in wheelchairs by Christmas trees. These were men who loved and were loved.

Thanks to COVID, they died comforted by staff members as their families were mostly kept away. In the heat of August, sons and daughters mourned the once strong fathers who built businesses, walked fields, fixed tractors, painted houses, taught them to throw a ball, sang next to them in church, made the final journey of life without endangering family.

The Greatest Generation is disappearing as COVID ignites within our communities. They fought for our country’s freedom, raised families, built the cars and houses and machines of the 20th century USA, fed the world. In turn COVID has left us unable to protect them, not even gather for proper farewells.

As summer sneaks away, as our elderly pass in the settings meant to keep them safe, as our days of small social gatherings and playing games outdoors with our grandchildren are numbered, COVID is like the spreading black-eyed Susan which left unchecked threatens to obliterate the beauty of other blooms.

In honor of James Armstrong, Dominic St. Peter, and Marlin Hunt. With sympathy to their families and to all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. Friends, please help friends stay healthy and strong.

Black-eyed Susan

Mount Fuji and Grey Hair

“How old are you?” The bike expert was putting a new battery into my cyclecomputer. How old am I? I wasn’t sure. I have had difficulty knowing how old I am. I’m going to retire next year at 63. On my birthday in September, I’ll be 62. I must be 61. 61 I told him.

“How much do you weigh?” I didn’t know that answer either. When was the last time I was on a scale? He must have taken my pause as a reluctance to reveal my weight. Before he could finish his explanation of why he needed my weight I made a guess and gave him a number.

On my bike ride home, I wondered, “If I didn’t color my hair, would that help me remember my age?” I don’t feel 61. If my hair was in its natural state, it would be completely silver or white. Maybe I’d look more my age. That is exactly why I have been coloring my hair for years in the first place. I didn’t want my children to have an old mother. I figured I’d wait until after they graduated from high school to go natural. Then the pandemic came. Now seems like a perfectly good time to work with all those feelings that grey hair will bring.

Sitting in the salon chair, I could see a family resemblance reflected in the mirror. I never wanted my mother or Aunt Annie to slide in and out of my face. With grey hair that might be exactly what I get.

Hiking up the ski hill, I imagined that our trip to Japan and our climb up Mount Fuji this coming July was still on. That trip may or may not happen. Like the rest of the world with this pandemic, my family and I are on a wait and see. Laboring for breath walking up the steep incline felt great. My entire body was committed to reaching the top. Once there I was graced with the Minneapolis skyline. I will continue to climb and descend regardless of COVID-19. Grey hair will certainly happen.

Cocktail Hour

Before all of us dispersed at the end of the evening, the leg broke loose from the fire pit bowl, toppling hot embers into the street.  It had been repaired once before using a zip tie.

Our melting pot of a block was gathered together for no reason other than a stay-at-home order was in place for midnight.

Lawn chairs were haphazardly set in a circular pattern at the dead end of the block in front of the No Parking Fire Lane sign.

Jody and I had been encouraging these get-togethers for over twenty years. Many had been held in our back yard. Now others on the block often sounded the alarm for a get-together.

Single, married, remarried, divorced, widowed, Indonesian, Hispanic, African American, white, young, old, Republican, Democrat, gay and straight mixed around the fire that I poked with my 6-foot distancing stick.

There were those who believed in conspiracy theories, those who loved our President and blame the Chinese, and those attracted to herd immunity. There were also those who were frustrated with the President’s response and reassured by the state’s plans.

Our entire block of eight houses was represented, in its diversity and imperfection, a potpourri of all there is in the world.

Throughout the evening, I moved from lawn chair to lawn chair, appreciating all our differences.

I took pride that we could come together time after time finding commonality and enjoyment in each other.

Before he left, the oldest guy on the block would say with satisfaction, “None of us on the block have it,” meaning the COVID–19.

I was happy to be a part of his ‘us.’ He was too. Though in all respects, he and I, are polar opposites in our religious and political views. I take delight in who he is. He’s gifted me fish he’s caught and venison from deer he has killed.

I believe, that despite our differences, if my family did get COVID-19, he and all the others on our block would look after us. We are all part of the ‘us.’

His wife stayed back helping me with the now broken fire pit. We doused the embers together. Before she walked down the street, she said, “We need a get-together at our house. We’ve never had people over.”

Our imperfect block will continue to rendezvous. The broken fire pit will once again get mended. Social distance will be respected in varying degrees.

A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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Mental Whiplash

On February 19th, the snow was deep in our yard, and our alley was so rutted with thick ice that my car was forced to follow the deep track. Before my husband and I left for our three-week snowbird experiment in the Southwest, life seemed relatively predictable.

We are keenly interested in politics, so the Democratic primary in South Carolina on February 25 and Super Tuesday on March 3 (which included Minnesota) were on our minds. We voted before we left town.

We speculated about the outcomes as we hiked in the California desert among shaggy palms, Joshua trees, and giant boulders that are tumbled like toys in the foothills.

Less than 48 hours before Super Tuesday, the trailing presidential candidates ended their runs abruptly. Although the departures were inevitable, the timing was startling. The consolidation of candidates meant that my early vote was irrelevant. Like many, we were astonished by Joe Biden’s surge. When Elizabeth Warren exited a few days later, I was sad that there were no women candidates. The political landscape had changed dramatically, and the rapid change was jangling. However, COVID-19 felt remote.

In Tucson, our next destination, the desert was blooming. Clumps of yellow desert marigold dotted the hills that bristled with saguaro cactus. The sunny warmth of Sabino Canyon’s trails soothed me.

During the first week of March, concerns about COVID-19 came to the forefront for us. This was new terrain. Until then, sensible precautions seemed enough; our life hadn’t been disrupted. With each subsequent day, our understanding of the COVID-19 crisis increased as updates poured in faster than we could absorb them.

The Grand Princess cruise ship, which carried passengers ill with COVID-19, docked in Oakland. We worried about our son and his significant other, a physician in Oakland, who would be on the front lines.

The sky was overcast but the temps were still warm as we walked trails alongside the broad dry Rillito riverbed. I noticed spikes of pink penstemon, but our conversations centered around the looming pandemic and the conflicting national response. We worried about restrictions on flights from Europe where our niece was studying abroad and the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

By the time we flew home, the landscape was changing hourly with updates about cases and the CDC and NIH’s latest guidance. On our first day back, the president declared the overdue National Emergency. Comprehending the impact of the cascade of closings and event cancellations was hard. Is hard.

The pandemic is uncharted territory. Only a week ago, I wondered if I’d be able to fly to Chicago later this month for a wedding shower. Several days ago, meetings with my writer’s group and book group seemed possible. We’ve ruled out travel, in-person visits, and ordinary errands to help “flatten the curve.” The daily, even hourly, changes are like mental whiplash. No school. OK. Restaurants and stores with limited service. OK. Stay home. Got it.

March 18thIn the space of a month, so much has changed. The world looks very different. Socializing in person has been postponed. I no longer assume my travel plans for May and July will happen. We’ll see. We’re figuring it out, day by day, case by case, just like everyone else.

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At the moment, we’re healthy. The snow in our yard is nearly gone, and the alley is ice-free and dry. As I circle the yard, I note the early tulips and weeds pushing up in my gardens as they always have. Though much is unknown and I’m seeing the world with a new perspective, spring is coming, and for that, I’m grateful.