By Ann Bodle-Nash
It’s raining. The darkness of the day accentuates the uncertainty of the times as I sit at my kitchen table. A steady drip keeps time with my heartbeats. We are in Pandemic Time, a seemingly vast, uncharted, unlimited pause.
In front of me are the remains of two Zoom birthday party celebrations this week: hats, made of folded newspapers with stapled-on curly ribbon decorations and little snippets of tape, necessary because it has been decades since we had to fashion party hats from newspapers. Like pirates without eye patches. Yes, we wore them to add levity to our granddaughter’s 9th birthday party, excitement transmitted by electronic means this year. It will be a birthday to be remembered. We looked very silly in them. She wore a princess tiara.
The following day was our daughter’s 37th birthday. She arrived to Zoom dressed in an inflatable Power Ranger Halloween costume. Her hair was beautiful, her smile brilliant. She had upstaged us all, as is fitting of a birthday girl. Bless that child for lifting us all up. Her cat paraded in the background, making a cameo now and then, became bored with us all and took a nap.
Yes, it’s what many of us are doing while housebound. Sleeping. Cooking. Watching TV. Napping. Eating again. Checking to see if the rain has stopped, whether the tulips have survived the deer’s grazing, if it’s warm enough to pull weeds, plant the garden, remove moss from the driveway.
My Oregon sister is busy sewing masks for her daughter, a doctor in Indiana, who has sent out a plea for PPEs. A phrase we did not commonly know until the Pandemic. My California sister is busy tending to our at-risk parents, living in an adult community, at ages 93 and 92. She worries the front desk will deny her entry one of these days, although she and they remain healthy. Additionally she checks progress on her house under construction, a house rising from the ashes of the Northern California Tubbs Fire in 2017 in California.
“Isn’t it enough,” she says “that we have come through the fire, and almost another one the following year? And now a Pandemic?”
I have no answer for her except to feel sympathy, and to shout YES. We are tired and it is too much already. But we continue to breathe.
My children are scattered by this Pandemic. Our son lives across the now-closed Canadian border, working from home. One daughter and her husband work as front- line responders in health care. They disinfect obsessively to protect themselves and their only child. One daughter is unemployed, awaiting an interview that was disrupted by the closing of the US border and her potential employer’s return to Denmark.
Husband, who is retired following a stroke— but well enough to feel the walls closing in— bought a wire, suet-cake type birdfeeder last week and took great care in positioning it outside the dining room window where we can watch obsessively. We are not birders in any sense of the phrase, but the lure of bird identification has sucked us in. The Pederson Field Guide sits on the table, at the ready. Chickadees? Speckled Towhee? A Red-Bellied Woodpecker out of its normal range? I check online, I examine each posted photo on the birders Facebook page. It passes the time.
Friends share photos of food we have turned to in this time of Pandemic. This time of too much time, what to do, what to make? Cakes, pies, poached pear cobbler, cinnamon bread, braided challah loaves. We crack open jars of home-canned pears and pickles, grateful for our stash.
Some days we stand outside, near our rural mailbox, waiting for a neighbor to pass by, walking their dog. It happens now and then. I have met Leo, Mona and their owners. I have met the new next-door neighbor Eric, who is sheltering in place with his 92-year-old father. And the man who lost his wife, sold his boat, bought a small house near the park, with his rescue dog from Mexico. He helped us put back together the flag on our mailbox, which had rusted, needed repainting, and now reinstallation. It is a fish motif. We kept our distance. Small mercies.
The mailman should be surprised to see it finally back up. It took a Pandemic to get around to that job.
I’m working from home, hosting radio interviews about suddenly important subjects, for our station that is locked down, on a closed college campus. Electronic wizards keep us functioning in a Zoom sort of way. I play music to myself— with no way to broadcast— but have decided John Denver is too nostalgic (it makes me long for my younger days, and cry), Aretha is uplifting, Joan Baez somewhere in between. I’m on a John Prine binge to send psychic empathy towards Nashville where he struggles with Covid-19. Hello Out There, John.
Not everyone is housebound. The first responders are working to save us all. The least we can do is to cooperate. We are all in this together.
The cinnamon bread dough is rising again. It’s raining lightly outside. I should be making vertical marks on the recipe card to represent the number of loaves I have made, two per week, since the stay-at-home-order due to Covid-19 began. I imagine I am marking on a prison cell wall, not marking off the days, weeks or months of confinement, but the number of times I have turned on my red Kitchen-Aid mixer, combined flour, yeast, sugar, eggs and liquid, prepared the cinnamon-sugar filling, and placed the greased bowl in the warmth of the closed-door microwave oven to rise.
There is not much else to do some days. We are retired. We are deemed at increased risk of infection to an unseen enemy. It feels to be a powerful force, the likes of which we have never before faced.
It is not understood as well as Malaria or the long list of sexually transmitted diseases. Polio is a distant memory. TB rarely mentioned. Small pox prevention a small scar on my left shoulder. Covid’s mark may be internal, a psychic scarring.
Yet, my garden is flourishing. Peas are sending tendrils skyward, beans emerging; rhubarb spreading its massive leaves wide, covering parsley and thyme. Or perhaps it’s oregano, I’ve lost track. So much is mushing together in my memory as the days run into one another. We now have five bird feeders, each with specific food based on the configuration of the feeder. I’m meeting new species daily, taking photos through the window and posting them to my neighbor Becky for confirmation. My bird guru.
Driving the twenty miles to town, I realize going to the grocery store has become a major, weekly, entertaining event. Costco? Hell yes. Trader Joes, double yes. We wear our required masks, stand in line to enter, shop quietly, rarely making eye-contact, following one-way arrows, delighting in the tomatoes, bananas, the frozen pot stickers. We feel lucky to have the funds to buy more food than the basics— to have remained healthy.
Is this week eight we ask each other? Will the stay-at-home order ever lift? It has become the norm, but what would it be like to dine in a restaurant again?
My sister calls and asks if I’d like to travel with her to Iceland at the end of the summer. She might as well be asking if I’d like a trip to the moon. I, the non-stop traveller as long as I have been alive (nearly), decline. “I’m waiting on the vaccine,” I say. It may be a long time. It may be forever. I stumble upon travel photos in my hard drive and I feel the tug, now tempered with fear instead of excitement to take on the world. Paris toujours, has become a perhaps.
The tulips are finished, roses budded but not in bloom, the rhododendrons mid-way through their annual spectacle: first white, then pink, red, purple. I do not understand why the color progression is that way; I only observe nature’s order year after year. I take comfort in the reemergence of hostas, ferns breaking from dark, damp earth; bleeding hearts, astilbe, fuchsias, calendulas, hollyhocks, gladiolas, volunteer tomatoes and dill. Potatoes popping up where I did not expect.
There is an order to nature, of that I feel certain. But this year we are caught in a maelstrom of nature gone berserk, tossing us about, while we hang on tight, seeking the shore, which is not yet visible. I dream of that order, wishing it to return, and to hurry please. I am dreaming of Greece, or France, or Yellowstone, or a long- car ride most anywhere.
Fall has arrived in the Northwest. But Pandemic Fall is different than others in my memory. We have those warm expected days, and a smattering of raindrops, but this year it’s the smoke that has us hunkered down, like rabbits in their burrows. Smoke that engulfs us from fires throughout the West: California, Oregon, Washington. The air so thick I’ve lost sight of my next-door neighbor’s home on the other side of a long blackberry hedge and a volunteer apple tree brimming with mystery apples. The wind will surely shift eventually, and blow from the Pacific toward the Cascades, toward the Rockies and the Appalachians. But it takes its time this year.
Ironically it’s a bumper year for my fruit trees—apples and pears galore. Any neighbor who inquires receives a bag of multiple varieties, organic I remind them. Translation: they may be buggy.
We now don our masks to take out the garbage, quite accustomed to mask wearing— in fact I have a bag full of choices. I made three styles as the Internet downloads progressed.
Limited Edition 1: rectangles with long ties behind the head with pleats. Signed and numbered.
Limited Edition 2: rectangles with a pieced rounded beak, loops of elastic at the ears (never quite the correct length) and a twisty tie (like in the produce department, only white) inserted into a top seam.
Limited Edition 3: Finesse now at play—beak style, elastic loops extra long and self-adjustable by way of a loose knot, with bendable nose metal. Reversible, sometimes with two different fabrics joined together across the front. Children’s length and adult sized. Oversized for two friends with beards. Batiks are my game: fish prints, paisleys, eggplants, pineapples, polka dots, fish rings, and sloths. Brown geometrics for a neighbor. All with three layers, including the layer of iron-on, fused (not woven), interfacing.
I have put my sewing machine away for now. The energy for creation has subsided as the pandemic season stretches before me. Besides, commercial mask makers have flooded the Internet, the grocery, Target, gas stations, etc. Mass production has overtaken my desire to create custom designs and fabrics.
But the loneliness of isolation persists. There are friendship bubbles for some, school pods, and organizational meetings via Zoom. There is my son on the other side of a closed Canadian-US Border. A scant fifty miles north, it might as well be 5,000 miles for all the progress that has not been made since March, when it slammed shut. I definitely heard the thud and the key turn in the lock. Heard the key falling down a dark, deep well. Now I hear there are 400,000 Canadian RVs headed for British Columbia, to winter, instead of Arizona. It’s warmer than Alberta.
The granddaughter is back in school, but remotely. Grade 4 will be remembered, not for who was in her class, but for which adult monitored her learning each day. The upside is those now-possible bike rides during the lunch break.
Middle daughter has a new job in her field, after months on unemployment. She has a boyfriend, found in these times! He is kind and knows how to fix things. Bonus points.
We are allowed to see our granddaughter and eldest daughter again, and to steal a forbidden hug, if her father is not watching. It is touch we are missing— we vulnerable older adults. Upcoming holidays together are being debated.
The cornerstone of my September Fall memories 2020 is my father’s passing. Covid-19 or not, the natural life and death cycle keeps playing out. Even though 94, even though he was struggling for many months (years), even though he was lucky enough to have my mother, and daughters and faithful caregivers tending to him, the loss is deeper than I expected. When a friend says, ”I’m so sorry for your loss,” I unexpectedly tear up. It catches me off guard every damn time. My friends notice, and sigh, and say, “It just takes time.“ They have already walked the path of parental loss.
In this time of Pandemic— with over three hundred seventy thousand US deaths at this writing, political election conflicts, parental loss, fires that again rage in my hometown and isolation from old friends and family—nature has never called more strongly as an antidote. The soothing sound of moving water, goldfinches and great blue herons singing out, an eagle soaring above, a mysterious overfed-Siamese cat appearing at my doorstep all mean something. Just what, I am not yet sure. Perhaps that if we settle in for the long haul we too will survive.
Copyright Bodle-Nash 2021