It’s Christmas Eve, a day of gathering for my family. Please consider the hands in the image above. I took the photo seven years ago, at a family graduation party. Something about those clasped hands made me quietly snap a picture. The hands in white are my mother’s. The others are my Aunt Nancy’s. Here’s a poignant fact. My mother is at that table with three of her sisters-in-law. Now two of them, Fannie and Elsie, are gone. Only my mom and Nancy are left—and they can’t be together now, because of the coronavirus. Lately, I’ve been exploring my family history on my mom’s side, a kind of coping mechanism against the pain of the pandemic and this wild year of politics. (I shared stories from my dad’s side in an earlier essay—“Farm Boys: Lessons for the Pandemic.”) I’ve read historical accounts authored by, or contributed to by, a number of my relatives: my grandmother Hilda, Uncle Carl and aunts Mildred and Ingrid, and a distant cousin whom I’ve never met. As I expected, the reading has provided a kind of focus and relief from anxiety. What I didn’t imagine was how deeply that looking back would affect me.
All of a sudden, life will go to hell, as with this pandemic, as in the sorry things it’s revealed about us as a culture. Long before the virus, though, one of the hardest times for me was when my father died. He’d been failing, visibly—but knowing what was coming barely blunted the pain of losing the family structure we’d all relied on. In a corner of my parents’ great room was a daybed, with a second mattress that hid underneath. I took the picture above from that bed, in the days after my dad died. Whenever we were all at home, there weren’t enough beds, so we improvised, many of us on the floor. My youngest sister and I slept in those twin beds. The night I took the photo, I had just gotten into bed, fatigued by a day spent getting our mother’s new existence in order—death notifications, changes to accounts. My siblings were still awake, playing a board game in the dining room. In the low light of the great room, hearing their voices, I felt comforted. Hard times in my life have been interspersed between mostly good times, of course, and it’s tempting to wax idyllic about the good days. But they weren’t perfect, either. The past wasn’t perfect by a long shot—but life was “right,” in the sense of its unfolding, of gradually growing toward wisdom. What I’m saying is, there’s a gift even when things go to hell.
This morning, it’s a mist-in-the-lowlands kind of morning. Earlier, as the sun was coming up, I drove for groceries. Our quiet town was peaceful. Anyone driving through it, I thought, might forget the country is in disarray. I love the stillness before dawn—even a grocery store has a peaceful feeling then. During the drive, I reflected on what we’re facing, with the pandemic, the unrest, and the failure of so many of our country’s leaders to act for the collective good. The sky was a mottled blue and orange, so beautiful, and as I felt its calm wash over me, a memory surfaced from when I was in middle school. Just like that, I had a new way of thinking about what needs to happen, to solve the problems we’re facing.
There’s something friendly about a frog. The year I was in first grade, my family lived with my father’s parents on their small farm. A few Holsteins and their calves roamed the pastures, along with chickens, barn cats, and a scruffy collie. There had once been workhorses and pigs. The pigpen was still there, a visible reminder, and the horses’ leather harnesses hung dust-covered on pegs in the barn. The farm seemed magical. My brother and I spent our time outside, catching things—butterflies, lightning bugs, snakes. This is where the frogs come in. We’d splash into the creek after frogs or chase them in the garden or woods. Frogs were my favorite. I took this picture of a tree frog one morning not too many years ago. It’s climbing the railing of our deck, maybe drawn by the smell of the coffee my husband and I were savoring in the sunshine. I love its feet—the delicate little cups that give it super powers to go anywhere.
I used to spend hours each day with my mother at her senior living apartment. That ended suddenly, one day in March, when I found a sign on the door saying the building was closed to visitors because of COVID. After five months now without a serious, face-to-face talk with anyone but my husband and our dog, I feel an increasing need to say something meaningful to somebody different. I’m an introvert, a poet, comfortable with small spaces. Given all that’s going on in the world, it feels safest inside these four walls. The pandemic has exposed some scary things—there’s a polarity, a mean-spiritedness around us. People choose camps: “I’m religious” . . . or “I’m scientific” . . . or “I’m liberal,” or “libertarian,” or “conservative.” We could parse it a hundred different ways. In today’s political climate, you have to pass a membership test—you have to choose an identity and wear it like a medal. Here’s my confession, this fifth month of COVID—in this climate, I’m a failure.