As I write this I realize it has been exactly two months since my own “shelter in place” began. Ordinary families and individuals like me had no inkling then of what was yet to come. We are still learning, trying to come to grips with a situation none of us was prepared for. Most of us have faced moments of anxiety at some point in our lives before now, but this is so much more than a moment of anxiety. It is a new way of life, one that will require a lot of getting used to. Our lifestyles are always in the midst of change, but usually change comes slowly, sometimes with a good outcome, and other times with nothing but memories, bad and good.
I find myself comparing our lifestyle during this pandemic with the way people lived, especially in rural areas, during the 1918 flu. They were already in the midst of the recovery from war, with many families grieving from the loss of husbands and brothers, the bread winners. Few households had electricity. They burned candles or lit kerosene lamps. An automobile was still a luxury. Indoor plumbing was rare, and every drop of water had to be brought to the kitchen from a spring or a well. (Clean hands did not come easy.) There were no vaccines. That would come later. The decade following the flu was called the Roaring ’20s, a time of recovery, economic growth and widespread prosperity, all of which would be threatened by the Great Depression. A new President, a victim of polio before the vaccine, told the nation that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, words we might heed today. Eventually, daily living began to show enormous changes for the better and much hope for the future. Even in the midst of another world war, a ray of hope, despite scenes of bloody battles, replaced the sad images of the soup lines of the Depression. Telephone and power lines dotted the landscape. Outhouses disappeared as water lines brought new life, and dusty, muddy roads began to be paved. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from our lifestyle’s dependence on each other. Once-upon-a time we were self-supporting. If a store closed, we hardly noticed. After all, as I recall from my childhood, if we couldn’t grow something, it didn’t show up on our table with the exception of flour, sugar, and a few spices. I don’t remember eating beef as a child. We caught fish on a trot line or cane pole in the Conasauga River and rabbits in a gum box. Grandma always had chickens and didn’t hesitate to wring their necks for our Sunday dinner. (My answer to why a chicken crossed the road is “to get away from my Grandma.”) My farming uncle provided sorghum syrup and grew the corn that would be ground for meal, the basic ingredient for cornbread and hushpuppies. We held one advantage that today’s society has lost. Our kin, our closest loved ones, lived nearby. And neighbors were as dear as family. Families are close today … as close as our cell phones … but we cannot see the sparkle in their smiling eyes, or feel the touch of their hands, when they are across the continent. Neighbors are those people Mr. Rogers sang about. We cherish each relationship during this madness, and there are many. It’s one aspect of the lessons we are learning.
Obviously we can’t go back to those times, and we don’t want to. And so we must adjust. We are not a patient people. We’ve come to be an instant society. We want the virus to go away, now.
As difficult as it is for most of us to change our way of life, it is unspeakably more difficult for those among us who have lost loved ones. We grieve with those families whose precious kinfolk are gone. When the world recovers, when we finally go back, without masks, to the store and to the gym, to work and school, to ball games and concerts, to parties and church, there will be those kitchen tables with an empty chair. There very possibly won’t be a wage earner, or a mother or father. A beloved neighbor may be gone, or a friend nearby or faraway.
Surely our future holds a vaccine to give us such hope as we’ve seen in smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, shingles, and all manner of influenza. In the meantime, it’s one day at a time as even the new normal changes daily.
Some reports tell us that alcohol consumption has increased as has the sale of lottery tickets. There is simply no explaining people, so I won’t try. I’ll have another cup of coffee, my addiction. And I’ll park the car in the driveway, gambling that it will rain to wash away the dust.