It started May 25th, when a hen turkey walked her slow and careful walk past our patio. The trees in this photo border our narrow back yard. They loom above the house. Our dog loves to sit out on the patio, on my husband’s lap, and gaze into the woods. There’s a gully hiding there, with a stream that drains a nearby wetland. We’re close to the Mississippi, and the water in the gully flows to the river. All sorts of wildlife move through the yard, just outside our patio doors—deer and bears, squirrels and chipmunks, an occasional skunk and a diversity of birds. Watching those wild creatures go about their lives reminds my husband and me that we’re part of that leafy world. Our window on nature reminds us of our own humanity, the impulse in us toward compassion and sympathy. That reminder has never been more needed than this summer, 2021, a summer mired in pandemic, but also, thank God, a summer of turkeys.
Over the weeks that followed May 25th, the hen kept emerging from the gully. She would feed along the border of our yard, strut through the hostas, and disappear again into the gully. We speculated she was nesting down there. We began to anticipate her appearances.
My mom lives down the street in a senior living apartment that’s part of a large complex, at the far end of which there’s a nursing home. People who don’t have a loved one living in senior housing or in a care facility have had a different experience with the pandemic. They’ve had freedom we haven’t had—freedom to determine how they’ve lived and whom they’ve allowed into their circle.
My major aim throughout Covid has been keeping my mother safe. Mom moved here to Minnesota after my dad died, when she began to need more help. Now the roles in our relationship are reversed. It’s like this—mothers birth us, protect us, and teach a set of values, the “rules” of life. I consider the rules my mom and dad gave me to be good ones, and I try to live by them. Mom was raised by farmers, who gave her a sense of care—for family and neighbors, for crops in the fields, and for critters. The cats that prowled the haymow, chickens pecking in front of their coop, horses and cows roaming the pastures. Everything she’d learned from her upbringing she taught to me. It’s my turn now, to give her loving care. To help my mother as she ages seems natural. It was something she did for her mother in her final years. I knew there would be challenges, but we’d develop a flow.
Mom’s first year here overlapped with the last year before I retired from teaching. I generally finished up on campus in mid-afternoon. Then I would go to Mom’s and spend a couple hours with her. Sometimes we stayed there, maybe cooked, then watched TV. Sometimes I’d find her “gussied up,” and we’d head out shopping or to a restaurant. We had a flow. It was comfortable. We were together at least six days a week. Then, in 2020—the coronavirus.
I don’t envy the administrators at Mom’s senior living facility. They have had a huge responsibility—keeping safe a community of hundreds of people at risk of serious illness because of their age. When Covid hit, in March 2020, administrators locked the whole facility down. Because I’d been watching closely as the virus spread, reading the science of it as much as the basic newsroom facts, I was expecting that a closure at Mom’s facility was coming. Still, when the building actually locked down—when I found that sudden sign on the door, barring me from entering—the flow stopped. What did this mean? How was I going to take care of my mom?
Understand, please, I’m not complaining about the closure of my mother’s facility. The senior living staff followed state guidelines: good rules, well reasoned and based on science—how viruses do what they do, how contagious illness spreads. Every facility employee worked to protect the residents. While the changed guidelines destroyed my connection to my mom, they kept her safe.
Standing at the building doors—that first heart-clenching day—staring at the hastily taped up sign prohibiting entry, I knew that the flow Mom and I had established was now a memory. How would I get groceries to her? Deliver her meds? How would I handle her banking, write out her bills, help with cleaning and laundry? My mother is hard of hearing and frail—her hands can barely hold a pen. The rules of the lockdown meant she couldn’t leave except for medical care. How would she handle being alone? How would I handle my anxiety, being locked out?
I had my husband and myself to worry about, too. I stopped going into stores. I began having groceries delivered. There was so much not understood about this new virus. To keep from sending the virus to my mother via her groceries, my husband and I took to disinfecting what was delivered—at first doing it out in the garage, freezing our backsides off, later moving the process inside, and finally, not disinfecting at all, as scientists discovered and reported more about how the virus spreads. By air, mostly, not bags of apples.
When we would drive my mother’s groceries to the facility, a member of the staff would have to break away from her usual duties to cart Mom’s groceries to her apartment. It disrupted that worker’s flow. It’s hard to fathom the added work and emotional strain that facility employees have endured since Covid. They’ve done the same partnering with every family that has a loved one there. There’s a banner out front, along the street. It reads, Heroes Work Here. “That’s the truth,” I think, every time I pass it.
It’s remarkable what can be handled from afar. I coached my mom by telephone on paying her bills and interacting with the bank. Eventually, about six months in, guidelines at the facility changed. I was able to become Mom’s “essential caregiver,” which meant I could go into her apartment. I could carry her groceries up and again do the tasks I used to help her with. Our flow resumed, but it was different—I wore a mask and face shield, and that meant I had to use pen and paper to write out my half of our conversations. Mom couldn’t hear or understand me through the mask and shield.
Over the winter, my husband, my mother, and I were vaccinated. Such a flood of relief coursed through me as the needle went in, such fullness behind my eyes. Being immunized made me more relaxed about being with my mother, but it didn’t change the protocol when I’d visit her. I still wore the mask and shield. I still had to stay six feet away. The rules wouldn’t change until there was science to support it.
Early this summer, 2021, that change finally came.
Covid infection numbers dropped enough locally so that general visitation re-opened at the facility. Family and friends were allowed to enter the building, fully masked and signing in with a temperature check. Around the time the hen turkey first strutted up out of the gully, at the end of May, vaccinated residents and their vaccinated visitors were allowed to stop wearing masks while in the resident’s apartment. When Mom and I finally took ours off, it felt surreal to sit together without them. My mother could hear me again.
Happily, virus infection numbers kept dropping. Hope and light seemed to be bursting out everywhere. Mom’s facility began to allow overnight guests, and my siblings planned visits here later in the summer. It was almost too much to contemplate—none of us had been together since Covid arrived.
In the following weeks, Mom and I went out to a restaurant. I knew how important it was to get her out of her building, to bring back some semblance of our flow before Covid. But I was nervous. Many in our area were refusing to get vaccinated. They rolled the dice, offering themselves to the virus as a host to multiply in, a chance for it to mutate into a dangerous variant. That choice by my neighbors has been disappointing to me. I’ve wondered how they do not see that continued spread of the virus endangers everyone, especially the health and freedom of their friends and neighbors who live in places like the one my mother lives in. Over the course of July, Mom and I dared restaurant outings a few more times. It was wonderful, after her long lockdown.
In mid-July, nature rolled in some more disruption.
Smoke appeared—smoke from wildfires. Every time the wind blew out of the north, a cool shift in the weather that we Northerners love, forest fires in Canada and northern Minnesota blanketed us with smoke. Over the next weeks, until early August, the smoke eddied across the street and past our windows, at times nearly as thick inside our house as outside. Sunrise and sunset were spectacularly red. When we’d take the dog out at night, the moon overhead glowed a rusty orange. Our small town, known for its clean air, was under constant pollution alerts. July 29th was the worst. All day, it felt surreal—the smoke flowed thickly through the neighborhood, as if we were surrounded by bonfires. I kept thinking about the hen turkey, out in the woods with no refuge from the bad air.
But then, there she was, strutting through the hostas.
On the morning of August 20th, my husband and I felt like celebrating. The hen finally revealed her brood, parading them past the patio window. They were brown bundles of muscled energy on stick legs! A big surprise was that the hen was not alone. There was a second hen turkey with her. Between them, they had six poults that they shepherded together. The babies moved like a single thing—staying close to the hens, flowing across the yard, through the hostas, into the trees. The flock never stood still, but I eventually got a few photos through the patio windows.
This photo is of one of the hens, giving me a side-eyed glance as she walks past. She’s not sure I’m trustworthy. Still, the hens kept bringing the babies around. They must have concluded we would do no harm.
The other photo is of both hens, guiding the tight little flock down the walking path that goes by our house. The sight of them was soothing balm. Thank God for the turkeys.
Just when our prospects were looking up, pandemic-wise, the Delta variant flared up. Much of the world has returned to living as if the pandemic were over—shopping and eating out, going to the gym, attending worship, gathering in large groups. I envy it. But my focus remains on keeping my mother safe. Many here continue to refuse the vaccine. There was a rush to get vaccinated early on, by those over 65. Then the vaccination rate stalled. By late August, fewer than half the people in the county were fully vaccinated.
Predictably, given an abandonment of mask wearing around town, on the 27th of August, my mother’s facility locked down again. I walked up to the door and found the closure notice posted. My heart thudded down into my shoes. Covid was in the building. That triggered strict protocols again, the difference being that as essential caregiver I could go inside. Since that day, residents have gone though periodic Covid testing; the tracking of their temperatures; off-again, on-again gatherings and meals together; sudden suspensions of family visitation. The last month has been a rollercoaster of openings and closings. It’s disheartening, for everyone.
Through it all, the turkeys came and went.
As my husband and I went back to always masking in public, and as my mom languished, the poults kept getting bigger, stronger. They moved faster, seemed more independent. One night toward the end of September, I was sitting in the living room at twilight. I had no lights on, and our dog gave a low bark. I looked out over the patio to see something large and dark and winged rise up off the ground and settle onto a low limb in the closest tree. It was one of the hens! I was barely aware turkeys could fly—and here they were, one by one, rising from the ground and flying high into the canopy of our trees.
I sat entranced on the floor at the patio door window. The turkeys were beautiful, flying from perch to perch, looking for just the right tree, the perfect branch. I went to bed that night feeling peace, knowing that the turkeys were resting in the trees on the other side of the wall.
Early that next morning, before dawn, a storm came in with a sharp and sudden push of wind. I was already awake, standing in the bedroom, and I heard it hit the house and the trees begin to shake. Then I heard a high-pitched peeping, peeping, peeping. My skin lifted in goose bumps. It must be our turkeys. Were they all right? I hurried to the patio door and opened it.
Yes, the turkeys were calling to one another in the trees, strange, eerie little clucks. Were they calling in alarm? In excitement, at the wind and the heaving branches? Were they calling into the dark out of affection, seeking and giving assurances? I “felt” them, hearing their small voices through the rain and wind. If only, I thought, our little town lived like they do, seeing our connectedness, guided by a concern for our lives together.
Every hard moment of this summer has been strangely beautiful. An irony is that I appreciate the world more when it seems in jeopardy. While Covid infection levels are dropping in parts of the U.S. and even across the globe, it’s not the case here. Our numbers keep going up, slowly, and then in leaps. The flow my mother and I have re-established teeters on the precipice of sudden lockdown.
I follow Covid ActNow, an online Covid data tracker. The site reports Covid case averages over the preceding seven days. As of October 6th, here in our county we were at 96.6 Covid cases per 100 thousand people. That’s well into the category of severe risk of being exposed to, and possibly infected with, the virus. There have been few Covid deaths here in recent months, which is a blessing. But I wonder, every day: how many of those who’ve chosen not to get vaccinated, not to even wear a mask, will get Covid and recover, but be left with debilitating health problems? That’s the piece people don’t understand—dying is not the only serious risk with Covid-19. It damages a wide range of body systems.
Thank God for the turkeys. One night last week, at dusk, the more dominant hen stood just off the patio. She seemed to know that we were watching—I, up close, and my husband farther back in the room, whispering, “Stay still. She’ll see if you move.”
The hen looked to the left, straight at the patio doors. She looked to the right, down the walking path. She looked back at us again, so purposefully, then she turned her back to us, stood tall, and raised sturdy and magnificent wings. She flexed them, feathers flaring, then lifted off into a glorious rising arc, settling on a limb at the top of the largest tree. My mind was quivering—she’d given us a gift, an image to live in our heads forever.
Thank God, for a summer of turkeys.
As fall takes over now, my mother continues to live like a hermit, and my husband and I do, too. We’re trying hard not to carry the virus into Mom’s facility, triggering another lockdown. We haven’t seen more than a handful of friends, a handful of times, over these last eighteen months. We continue to wear masks out in public. I see the dismissive, disapproving look that the occasional unmasked person will give me—the body language that speaks loudly. I’ve had to decide not to be bothered, to wear the mask as boldly as a turkey wears her wings. I do it for those who perhaps have to wear a mask because of some health issue, like the stooped elderly man who waited behind me in the grocery checkout line one morning. He pointed to my mask, then to his, and said, “You’re like me.”
“Yes,” I said. “I am.”