• How the Pandemic Made My Daughter “Essential”

    essential worker

    My daughter works as a cashier at a food market. Back in March, shortly before Florida’s “safer-at-home order,” her boss handed her a letter identifying her as an essential worker.

    “Keep it to show your grandkids,” I told her.

    She’s 21. Cue the eye roll. Yet I could tell the thought tickled her. Essential worker. People have called her a lot of things but never that.

    My daughter has struggled in school. All the well-meant accommodations and offers of extra help only made her feel worse about herself. It didn’t help that she belongs to a nerdy family, with a college instructor for a mother and an academic superstar for a younger brother. Later, she told me about some of her evasive maneuvers in high school, hanging out in a doctor’s waiting room across the street from campus while skipping classes. Days before her graduation, I wasn’t sure if she’d earned enough credits and crossed enough T’s to actually collect the diploma.

    What a celebration when she joined the class of 2017!  Then what?

    Her junior year she had started working part time at a fast-food joint because I couldn’t meet all her material expectations—ripped jeans, takeout, acrylic nails. After her manager got arrested for embezzling, I suggested the market.

    As my daughter makes very clear to everyone around her, cashiering is a J-O-B, not a career. She just hasn’t figured out her path yet.

    No rush, I said, but here’s the deal: 1) get more education or 2) pay some rent.

    She started community college classes. She wants to be a college student, like her high-achieving friends. Like her brother. Trouble is, she still hates school.

    And she hates her job. Mostly. She still enjoys the paycheck.

    She’s honest, hard-working, a bit mischievous but a leader. Yet she turned down a promotion to assistant manager. J-O-B, remember?

    How do you communicate to a child your faith in her boundless potential and your permission to fulfill it any way that makes her happy? I’ve told my daughter that college is an option, not an expectation, that plenty of people without bachelor’s degrees have financially rewarding and emotionally satisfying careers. She doesn’t believe me. Since kindergarten, her teachers and I—the whole culture really—have been talking up the wonders of higher education.

    “It makes your life interesting,” I say. Since you’re going to rattle around in your head all your life, you should at least furnish it well, to paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda. But I’ve come to respect that my daughter appoints her inner rooms in other, non-bookish ways.

    Her teachers made the economic argument. According to the Social Security Administration, women with college degrees outearn their peers with high-school diplomas by $630,000 over a lifetime. Although fuzzy on the calculations, my daughter finds this differential compelling.

    But she’s still cashiering. Ever-anxious, she dislikes change.

    “What about a job in hospitality?” I’ve suggested. Articulate, assertive, gregarious, with finely tuned human radar, she has soft skills in spades.

    She was considering that move not very seriously when the novel coronavirus infiltrated.

    All of a sudden, she was working extra hours while friends were losing their bartending and server jobs. Money!

    People were thanking her for performing an essential service. Respect!

    But also, every day, scores of hyperventilating strangers were handing her cash and credit cards. Danger!

    So, she upped her self-care. Forget my unambitious meals: She started to use her employee discount to buy salmon, peppers, and endless avocados.

    My little vector, I tease her. But she’s careful. She wore gloves long before her coworkers did, before the market put up plexiglass shields near the registers. Within hours, her gloves turn black from handling cash.

    “You’re so lucky to have a job,” people often tell her. Which is true. But my daughter also confronts pandemic panic for 4 or 8 or 10 hours a shift. She knows most of the PLU codes by heart and moves people through her line fast—fastest in the store—to minimize everyone’s exposure.

    Except when customers ask, “Can you scan my food without touching it?” My daughter answered by trying to pick up a tomato with her elbows.

    What stuns her, and me, is the selfishness fear breeds. In March one customer offered the manager $100 for the canister of disinfectant wipes. Another stole it. Now cashiers take turns sanitizing carts.

    Another customer leaned over the sneeze guard and huffed at my daughter, “See—what good is this going to do?”

    People regularly rail at her about the escalating cost of eggs and steak and strawberries, as if cashiers priced the produce. One afternoon my daughter pulled down her gaiter for a moment. A woman jabbed her finger toward the plexiglass: “She’s the reason I’m going to die!”

    Actually, it might be the other way around. At least 100 grocery workers have died of Covid-19, according to the Washington Post. But with no reporting requirements, it’s hard to keep track.

    My daughter dried a few tears and kept the checkout line moving.

    She vented later. If that woman is so worried, why doesn’t she use drive-through? Or get her groceries delivered? “I didn’t sign up for this,” my daughter wails.

    Her manager has praised her for stepping up. “And?” my daughter asked. In her experience, critiques always follow compliments. “What am I doing wrong?” Her manager couldn’t think of a thing.

    Sometimes my daughter lords her busyness over her nonessential brother and me, learning and teaching online, safe and bored at home. But she is rightly proud.

    As Florida relaxes its sheltering-in-place guidelines, the line between essential and nonessential businesses is blurring. Once infections abate, my daughter will return to being “just” a cashier.

    I hope she will find her métier in our clobbered economy. But shouldn’t any job done well convey dignity? My daughter is so essential to this family. Whatever her career, I wish she could carry that label into every workplace. 

    Sylvia Whitman is a writer for children and adults — books and articles for children, articles for adults. She teaches professional and creative writing at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Find out more about her and her work at

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  • I Am The (Gen X) Cheese

    Gen X Cheese

    My cell phone vibrates while I am on a conference call with the CEO of my company. We’re talking about the impending layoffs and I am trying not to cry, gearing up to tell half of my team that they don’t have jobs anymore. It’s my mom calling me, for the third time in fifteen minutes. It’s also nearly 10 in the morning, and my son hasn’t made it past brushing his teeth yet, and I need to get him on task for the day.

    By the time I’ve completed the call with my boss and gotten my son settled down to make his to-do list, trying to pull together assignments from nine classes spread out over three different web apps, my husband is whispering over his own muted Zoom meeting, “Honey, your mom keeps calling me. I can’t answer.”

    I have to get through one more meeting and put out two customer fires before I can call my mom back. Nothing is wrong, she tells me, she just wanted to make sure her phone still worked, and also, when am I coming to get her out of this place and why haven’t I been to visit?

    While I am re-explaining the COVID-19 restrictions that have kept her memory care unit on lockdown since March 15th, my son has fallen asleep watching a geography video. I can’t blame him. None of us are sleeping well at night, and the sofa is comfortable, but if I can’t get him through the last nine weeks of his freshman year, what is that going to do to his GPA?

    My mom cries, my son snores, and Zendesk squawks at me that someone needs help, while I hear my husband’s conference call heating up in the next room.

    In 1999, I was 28. I had a high-profile job at an internationally known non-profit. I was part of seminar based on the then-brand-new “motivational business fable”, Who Moved My Cheese? Our instructor went around the room asking us to identify with characters in the book. When it was my turn, cocky and self-assured, I said, “I’m the cheese.”

    I did not make any friends in that seminar, but the answer was typical me. I have never identified with the confusion of a struggle. I identify with solutions and ambition, and I don’t care where you put the cheese, because ultimately the quality of my work is going to attract attention and the cheese will come find me. At least, that was me before I had someone other than myself to care about.

    I was born in 1970. A latchkey kid starting in second grade, I took care of myself under the watchful eye of after-school specials, sheriffs from Mayberry, and dreamy Cleaver-style families from the time the bus dropped me off until my mom got home from her job in the evenings.  I grew up on slick Duran Duran videos and Madonna-fied feminism, with MTV babysitting my early teenage years. I was raised by a grab-bag of mixed media, and I believed the ideal woman should look like the cover of a Cosmo magazine, cook like a 50s housewife, and ball like Gordon Gekko, backwards and in high heels.

    I never learned to cook, but I looked amazing and I worked like I was a Diane Keaton character in a Nancy Meyers movie. I figured when I fell in love and got married, my household would be like the Huxtables, with two successful parents managing a brood of smart, well-adjusted children. 

    That is not what happened. Not even close. I did marry a great guy and we did have a great baby, but we were poor and struggling, both of us working to climb up into something better than the shady apartment complex where we were living. 

    After a merger in 2006 and the crash of 2008 slapped me down from professional heights with two layoffs in a row, and after solid months of caring for my mother through cancer in 2008 and heart disease in 2014, while trying to parent and wife, the only cheese I resembled was at the bottom of a spray can wedged into the corner of a dumpster.

    By the time my son entered middle school, with all its attending hormonal glories, my mom had succumbed to vascular dementia and I found myself sandwiched between one dependent whose pre-frontal cortex was only half formed, and another whose executive function had gone into early retirement.

    I found myself having the same conversations with both of them about everything from hurtful dining room gossip after my mom moved into senior living, to hygiene. Yes, you have to shower every day. Yes, deodorant is a non-negotiable.

    So, now, in Coronatimes, I sit at a desk behind my sofa trying to hold it together long enough to terminate good employees with the respect and recognition they deserve, while I worry about my own future. If I lose my job, what does that mean for our finances? What does that do to my son’s education? My mother’s living arrangements, as her savings dwindle and dip into my own? My ability to care for myself in retirement so that my son doesn’t have that responsibility?

    Sure, I’m the cheese, but only because I’m sitting between two pieces of bread in a generational sandwich.

    There was nothing in Quarterback Princess, any Judy Blume book, or my Trapper Keeper to prepare me for this. Well, maybe there was. “I’ll cross that bridge when I find it,” Simon Le Bon sang in my 8th grade anthem, The Reflex. And that’s what I do. 

    Bridge by bridge, I figure it out, and try to keep inching forward, in pajama bottoms and bare feet because I haven’t worn shoes in two months. I don’t have the time or emotional energy to do anything else other than take it one step at a time. And anyway, my mom is calling again. I need to answer that.

    Lane Morris Buckman is a writer from Dallas, TX. She is known for her work in picture books and the cozy mystery genre, and unknown for her smutty romance work as it is written under the pen name Nicole Lane. She also co-hosts the podcast about nothing, Divas Dish.

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  • What Perimenopause Is Like During a Pandemic

    By Chelsey Drysdale

    In the late ‘80s, a mysterious illness hit me with debilitating vertigo, plastering me to the same family room floor where my parents and I now treat the Roku box like a shrine during this COVID-19 quarantine. When I lifted my head off the floor, the world spun upside down. 

    That same year, my periods were a bloodbath. Vertigo, puberty, and a self-imposed pressure to be perfect triggered my first panic attacks. At school, I breathed into cupped hands, fearing I’d pass out, exposing my failure as a person. (I never did.) Windowless classrooms, test torment, and an inability to spring from my confining desk to run down the hallway made my hands clammy and my heart pound in my ears. This same claustrophobia was resurrected three decades later when COVID-19 made it essential to wear masks in public. 

    At 45, birth control pills having staved off unbearable periods for decades, my PMS morphed into an angrier, gloomier PMDD. Aimless rage and hopelessness hijacked my foggy brain for the same week every month. My hormones seethed like a second puberty. Adolescent angst and middle-aged distress are nature’s cruel bookends. Aging singles like me who never had children want a moratorium. 

    For a few years, stopping and starting the pill has been a seesaw game of “which is worse?” Then in November, an unprecedented red tidal wave rolled in and wouldn’t quit.

    “This must be what it’s like to have a miscarriage,” I thought one morning at 4:30 a.m., shaking and terrified. Yet, I’ve never been pregnant.

    My abstinence is miserable, just like in high school. I’ve had sex on three occasions in eight years because I quit sleeping with men who don’t care about me, and, during a global pandemic, dating—something I already deemed fruitless—is an even more distant memory. At 47, finding an available mate in this six-feet-apart, masked world makes less sense than Amazon delivering a live unicorn.

    In 10th grade, I often wondered, “Will I ever kiss a boy?” Now I wonder, “Will I ever kiss another man again?”

    I chalked up the two crime scene periods to perimenopause, not long before COVID-19 halted society. In February, unaware it was one of my last trips to a restaurant, a friend said, “You have fibroids.” By then I’d been taking the pill daily since early January, trying to suppress my cycle, with no luck. I have experienced breakthrough bleeding every day since.

    In March, my annual medical visit was postponed from April to August. I was nonessential. My doctor was only seeing pregnant women, reaffirming my middle-aged irrelevance.

    I cried at the thought of bleeding my way through summer. I mailed a letter and secured an online visit instead. While conferring via video chat, my doctor suggested my first-ever ultrasound and ordered a blood test. He mentioned performing an endometrial ablation, making it impossible for me to conceive.

    I suppressed a laugh. “That’s fine,” I said. Ten years ago, an ablation would have been devastating. Now, I want to rip out my uterus by hand. 

    However, my anxiety about walking into a medical building masked during a pandemic, riding an elevator, and being in close quarters with strangers who may have been exposed to a virus that could kill my family is higher than it has been since I gripped my desk with sweaty palms in my senior advanced composition class, hoping no one would smell my yearning to bolt—from what? Myself? 

    I feel trapped like I’m back in that claustrophobic school. I circle the inside perimeter of an imperceptible cage, my house-arrest release date undetermined. The world spins upside down. The laxer neighbors get with social distancing, the more imprisoned I feel because wearing a mask in public causes instant panic.

    The grocery store, once unremarkable, now incites dread. On a recent trip to Albertsons, an entitled man broke the six-foot rule, his oblivious smile on blatant display. He stood too close behind me in the checkout line, as I hyperventilated inside a painter’s mask, only my worried eyes and wild quarantine hair exposed. He pointed to my nostalgic t-shirt and said, “I went to that Depeche Mode concert in 1988 too.” I resisted the urge to drop my basket, tear off my mask, and sprint outside screaming.

    At Whole Foods, in a hurry to return to my car, I raced to unload my cart. This time I was the unmindful customer reprimanded for getting too close to the conscientious woman paying for her groceries in front of me. 

    “Ma’am, please step back,” the checker said. I looked up, confused. The other customer lurched from the credit card machine as if the cute plague-invested cows on my home-sewn cloth mask would lunge at her. I burst into tears. My reading glasses fogged up. I wanted to reassure her. I promise I’m careful. I promise I follow the rules. I promise I won’t get you sick. 

    Will those of us paying attention to science ever stop being afraid of each other again? 

    When my mind drifts to people suffering on ventilators, unable to speak, alone and untouched, their loved ones at home powerless, I can’t bear the crushing collective pain, and I’m overcome with guilt over my piddly, privileged Orange County white woman midlife crisis. 

    But anxiety is not rational.  

    On paper, my lifestyle prepared me for this drastic shift. It was easy to cancel my Super VIP ticket to the Cruel World Festival and a trip to the Midwest. Live music, travel, and face-to-face interaction are on hold, but I live in a house with a yard and read books at a fire table; I’ve telecommuted since 2008; I’m not on any dating apps; I’m not responsible for homeschooling a child; my therapist reminds me of my worth; and my high school pals meet online to stay sane. My buddy’s nine-year-old triplets pop onto my laptop screen to share their Animal Crossing finds; I wave hello to a friend’s 12-year-old, whom I last saw when he was two; I talk to a friend’s fiancé, while he kisses the top of his future husband’s head. And, while I can’t see my best friend in person, I can still hear her infectious laugh. I have two loving parents with whom to cook and hug each night. I text my sister to discuss books, and my nephew reads us hilarious stories in the backyard, even though we can’t touch him. No one I love is sick (yet). This is what joy looks like now. 

    It’s not enough.

    Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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  • How To Explode During Quarantine


    by Krissy Dieruf

    I’m stuffing my feelings—all of them, every day.

    I am a clinical therapist, so I know better. But quarantine during COVID-19 has created an abundance of confusion, too many emotions waging war in my mind to allow room to breathe. My feelings are like my house, bursting from the inside out, bloated, and stacked from bottom to top. My family has always been a group of rebels. Now we’re wild, caged animals who need to run. There are landmines everywhere. 

    My husband stepped on one the other day when he texted me a link for Online classes from the best colleges in the US. He sat there, in his office two feet away from my eternal perch at the kitchen island where I eat, serve, clean, empty the dishwasher, check my emails, trade GIF’s with my friends of women drinking tequila and bowls of wine, and then eat some more, thinking he was doing something super sweet.

    He said, Here, honey, you like to learn. Take a class!

    So when he walked out a few minutes later and I said, “Haha. That text about the classes! Who has time for that?” and he said, “I do. I already signed up,” I could tell by the look on his face he saw the explosion he had inadvertently triggered reflected in my eyes. The room went red. Fragments of once whole objects danced and burned before me.

    My husband grew pale, his mind working, wondering what the hell just happened and what should be his next move. He said, “I’ll make some free time. I can do it after the kids go to bed if I have to. You can, too!” 

    I felt like I was suffocating. My feelings strangled me. I tried thinking positive thoughts, such as My husband is a great person. Our children need him in their lives. I love him so much when he’s not working from home in the glass-doored office in our front hallway, and I’m not quarantined to my house, unable to see my friends or take my kids anywhere. But it didn’t work. I was a dam about to break. 

    The entire range of feelings a human being can know came spewing out of me in one sharp arrow aimed right at my husband’s forehead. I didn’t yell, but a low whisper when you’re angry is scarier.

    “I am struggling. Our children are struggling. We are drowning, and you are taking a fucking class from Harvard.”

    I might have been so crazed I even said Harvard in a Brooklyn accent.

    “Congratulations! Enjoy your class, in your little office, with your closed door, and your free time!” I yelled that last sentence, my voice rising with each word like an elevator going up up up, right off a cliff.

    I could tell he was falling through a myriad of reactions now, and he didn’t know which one to land on. He didn’t truly understand yet. Yes, I was drowning because, as I said, I was stuffing a million emotions into every fiber of my being. I was like a lead weight in the ocean, but I had never told him that before. To him, I roamed around the house doing laundry, vacuuming, and letting our kids play on their screens for way too long. I drag my three children on walks and circle the kitchen like a lost and starving lunatic most days. I could see how he would think I had time to sit down for two hours a week and get some good old learning done. 

    But what can look like a mom standing there not doing much is really a woman standing there holding everything for everyone.

    My arms are outstretched, aching from the strain, my most important job to keep it all together. I am trying to move, to do all the things without dropping the load like a million eggs on the hardwood floor. It is heavy. And to keep holding on, being the heartbeat, the pulse, the peace, the enforcer, the temperature, the brevity, the breakfast lunch and dinner, the shoes and coats, the clean rooms, the laundry, the clean floor, the wiping down of everything, the tooth brusher, the bath giver, the school work helper, the talker-through-er, the tiebreaker, the fight breaker upper, the maker-upper, the cookies and milk, the go to your room, the come here you need a hugger, day after day with no reprieve, and still sneak in a shower, no.

    No, I don’t have time to take a class. I cracked, letting the eggs fall. Rather, I started chucking them at his head.  

    Graciously, he let me throw it all at him, dumping the weight I had been carrying all over. When the shell fragments of my feelings lay strewn at our feet, my anger dissipated, I finally cried.

    “I think I am really sad,” I confessed. “I hate this so much.”

    And there, at my island, where I thought I was alone, he pulled me into a hug, my feelings and tears oozing like yolk all over his bare feet. We stood together, acknowledging the messy, confusing, uncertain, upside-down world we are living and all the emotions evoked by it.

    Life in quarantine, I realized, is my classroom. It’s not Harvard, but I have a lot to learn here. 

    When the smoke cleared, my husband and I promised to keep talking, to keep listening to each other. He went back to work five steps away, and I went back to the twentieth email about a zoom meeting for one of my kids. But I felt a little lighter, a lot less suffocated. And hungry.

    Krissy Dieruf is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children, loves to sing and dance around the house, and has a soft spot for rebels and crazy hair. You can find her on Facebook at Krissy Dieruf, Writer.

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  • The Virtues of List-Making In a Dark Time

    by Julia Cho

    I still have a copy of the digital to-do list I had up on my computer the day my 33-year-old husband died suddenly almost ten years ago.

    The list included everyday things (“Take the car for an oil change; Return library books”), as well as summer plans (“Go raspberry picking in August”).

    That list was a stark contrast to the list I created immediately after his death (“Cancel car appointment,” “Pick out funeral outfits,” and “Visit burial plots”).

    Mostly, my expectations were lowered to a mental list that included “breath, shower, eat.” But we grieve who we are and I was a list-maker, so I kept making lists.

    Later, I took a giant sheet from the roll of my daughter’s easel paper, taped it up on the bedroom wall, and started to write out to-do lists for every area of my life to get through that first year.

    Now that I’m quarantined at home on the outskirts of New York City, the epicenter of the virus, I have returned to list-making as an anchor and a way to structure these timeless days.  

    I realized after the first couple of weeks that this may not be the time to organize all of my photos or to bake something Instagram-worthy. This certainly isn’t a sabbatical. Our collective consciousness is bearing a tremendous weight. I thought back to my mental to-do list after my husband died: “breath, shower, eat.” I lowered my expectations. My mental list now includes making beds, showering and getting dressed, making nutritious meals, moving/exercising, getting outdoor time, making contact with others, and doing some kind of prayer or meditation.

    As the weeks have gone on, I’ve found myself making more and more lists. I write them on scrap paper, envelopes, and post-its. My now eleven-year-old daughter and I make one called “A Guide to Wellness During the Coronavirus” and list the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual things we can do for ourselves each day.

    I make a list of all of the items in my refrigerator and pantry, and household items I might need. I make a list of people I know who work in healthcare so that I can remember to encourage them. I make a list of ways I can help—sew masks, write, and call to check on people. It makes me feel less helpless. 

    But in the moments when I am too overwhelmed to write complete sentences, I sit outside with my journal and write lists of a very different kind. These aren’t the bullet journals and productivity hacks we normally use to feel in control or productive.  They are not a means to nail things down, but a way to open things up. Lists don’t have to be rigid or demanding. They don’t have to be confining. They can offer space, room for evolving, and even grace. Things can be crossed off. New lists can be made. Old ones can be crumpled and thrown out, even if they’re unfinished. 

    I follow Mary McEntyre, the writer and author of “Make a List,” and use her cue and write creative open-ended lists in my journal. I pick titles like “Things I’m Afraid of,” or “Things I Can Let Go” or “What I need Right now.” McEntyre says that making a list is “a way of calling to our own attention those things that might have lingered at the margins of our awareness giving them a place as we reorder our priorities.”

    This is certainly a time of reordering priorities. “In the process of making a list, I generally find that I can, as a therapist used to advise, ‘go to the place in me that knows,'” she writes. On the long days and weeks of this pandemic, I go to that place.  

    Even the humblest of lists can bring us a sense of grounding and connection. After a move a couple of years after my husband died, I found another woman’s shopping list while trying to navigate my new, unfamiliar grocery store. On one side of the unused return envelope was a list of errands: “K-clothes, J-clothes, laundry, cleaners, library,” and on the other, her grocery list under the heading “Shabbat Dinner”: “eggs, turkey, onions, apple chips, 4-6 pound brisket…” I picked up the envelope and kept it. In a new town I somehow felt comforted and less alone. There is a website that actually collects these types of found grocery lists and has over 3000 of them, so I am not alone in that feeling. 

    More than seven years later, I still have that woman’s grocery list. I also still have that giant torn sheet of IKEA art roll paper. In many ways it represents my survival. Tacking up that to-do list on my bedroom wall was evidence that I was still alive, despite what I had lost.

    Never underestimate the power of a list. It is a way of moving forward even when things feel stalled. It’s an act of creating when creating feels hard.

    In this time of quarantine, my lists are offering me space outside of the walls of my home, a way of making sense of chaos, a self-imposed structure on structure-less days, and even a way of hope. I’ve heard it said that planning is a form of hope. In some small way, the lists offer me a chance to believe in a future in a world of uncertainty. Somewhere in my pile of mismatched papers is a list of all of the things we will do after this passes. 

    Julia Cho’s work has been published by The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among many others.

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  • The Window: The Lockdown, My Mother, and Me


    by Emily Blake

    My mother and I had, for many years, an excruciating relationship. 

    My father was a loving, charming and brilliant man, and my mother seemed a repressive, ill-tempered presence in comparison. Her efforts to rein me in were the bane of my adolescence, and our hostility lingered after my father’s death, which devastated us both.

    I moved to France after he died. (He was a French historian, so it seemed like the proper tribute.)  Twelve years later, I received a message telling me that my mother was in the hospital, the ICU, in sepsis, with a tear in her intestine.  I got on the plane immediately, and when I arrived was afraid that the sight of me would push her over the edge.  It didn’t. She recovered and was transferred to a nursing home.

    Slowly, as she healed, she grew sweeter, and all the things I thought we’d lost returned.  She was as affectionate as she had been when I was little.  She began to tell me she loved me, and to permit me to say the same.  I couldn’t believe I had her back.

    In March of this year, when the crisis came crashing down, I suddenly realized that leaving the city to be near her might become impossible if I waited too long.  Perhaps air travel would be curtailed; perhaps it would be eliminated.  In a great rush, I put all my things in storage, packed two suitcases, and flew to the small city where she lives.

    Her nursing home is in lock-down.  No one is allowed in or out.  I quarantine myself — in a modified way, going out only for quick runs to the grocery store and long rides on an old bicycle through the lush park that is the centerpiece of her town, pulling up outside her room to greet her.  When occasionally aides offer to open the window between us, I frantically gesture for them to keep it closed, terrified that microbes will float in and kill not only my mother but ten or twenty other elderly, frail people inside.

    Her bed is flush with the window.  On one side it has a screen, with a faded, rusty smell, which slightly obscures the vision of my mother’s face.  The other side of the window is clear, except that it now bears smears where I have pressed my face against it.  Next to the window is a bird feeder on a narrow pole.  It is filled every week with the greasy birdseed the birds love, and is a joy of my mother’s life, as she can look out and see finches, sparrows, and sometimes a tufted titmouse, eating their fill and fluttering about when she wakes. 

    We are fortunate to have this window. Not all the beds have one, and past the bird feeder she can see a bicycle path with passing riders, trees, a few shops, and the sky.

    We have a daily ritual.  She calls me at ten.  “Good morning, darling!” I cry.  She replies, “Good morning, darling!”

    This by itself is such a change from our angry exchanges of years ago that it lifts my heart at once.  

    We then confirm my afternoon visit.  I cannot take anything in or out of the facility —though I did put together a small Easter basket with a blue bunny, sprayed it lavishly with disinfectant, and handed it to an aide with gloves, who took it in — but I can stand at the closed window and gesture to my heart’s content.  I take my phone. My mother gets out hers.  We call each other.  I jump up and down in delight, and she laughs.  Then, when she can hear —she is quite deaf but can make out singing — we have the song of the day.

    My mother’s repertoire of poetry and music is immense.  I never cease to be amazed at how she can remember every line of Irish, English and Scottish folk songs, Elizabethan love songs, and salty sailors’ shanties.  A particular favorite is The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, most of which I know.  If I have the tune, I will hum along or do harmony.  Sometimes I pretend to know the words, and imitate them. Sometimes I just give up, and wave.

    Through the window my mother makes small gestures as she sings.  She waves her hands, mostly her fingers as her joints are stiff, and makes small conducting movements, as with a baton.  The song may go for quite some time, if she knows ten verses.  She will keep on, even if I say perhaps that’s enough.  (I don’t often say this.)  I will, sometimes, suggest a merrier tune, as the long Celtic folksongs tend to be sorrowful, and I like to end on an upbeat.  

    A song she loves is one I brought home from school in the first grade.  She was charmed by it and has remembered it ever since:

    Horsey, horsey, on your way,

    We’ve been together for many a day:

    So let your tail go swish, the wheels go round,

    Giddy-up!  Giddy-up!  We’re homeward bound!

    We have been together for many a day, my mother and I.  She is 95 years old.  This division of the window, this closing of the nursing home, this shutting-down of daily life, has brought us closer still. 

    Through the window I see, not the repressive parent of my adolescence, not the antagonist of my adored father, but the enchanting, intelligent, childlike person I first knew when I came into the world, the person who rocked me in a great old wooden rocking chair in Maine and sang me the very songs we are singing now, in the same alto voice.  This closed window has sealed the rifts between us.  This shutting down has opened everything up.  

    And if indeed my mother is homeward bound, it’s in this way I’d like to end the journey.

    Emily Blake is an actress and writer who has lived between Paris and New York for the past twenty years. Her theatre studio, Théâtre de la Solitude, is devoted to the development of new work, especially by women. She teaches writing and literature at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

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