Quarantine, week 3. I have my good days and bad days, vacillating between frenetic energy and wanting to do nothing but sit and watch the news. It is frustrating that while I certainly have the time, I am struggling to even concentrate on reading. Reading which has been my salvation since I was a child! I curl up with my book and within a couple of pages my mind has drifted to wondering how my kids and grandkids are doing. I think about the heroic doctors and nurses. And I worry about whether or not the small businesses in our neighborhood will survive.
I know that worry is wasted energy. I have read the plethora of suggestions online on how to survive these difficult days without going down the rabbit hole of despair. High on the list is my old nemesis, self-care. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so I pulled together many of my favorite pampering items for a home spa day. Nice, but momentary.
After having been locked away in my ivory tomorrow for several days, Mr. Smith and I got out for a walk this past Sunday and I discovered spring has sprung. That did improve my mood.
I’ve been sewing masks for Mr. Smith who still goes into the office and made some for his co-workers. And just to make my grandma heart feel a little better, I made them for all my grandkids.
But it was an early morning quick grocery run that may have unlocked my tool from the past to help me navigate these unsettling times. Our favorite grocery store has been doing a phenomenal job of implementing social distancing, closing overnight for a thorough cleaning and having the check-out clerks disinfect the credit card machine and conveyor belt between each and every customer. When I complimented the clerk who was ringing up my groceries and thanked her for coming to work, she shared that she is grateful for the job. It keeps structure and routine in her day. She can’t just sit around and ruminate about current events. Musing on her appreciation of structure in her day led my stream of consciousness mind to thinking about when I was working in an office. I would finish my day by making a list of things I wanted to accomplish the next morning. I loved coming in the next day, getting to work on that list, and being able to cross things off. I decided to return to this practice and end my day with making a list of objectives for the next day.
Since I am no longer gainfully employed, I decided that in addition to chores, that list could involve some fun. Perhaps if an hour of reading is on my list, I will find it easier to sit back and indulge in my book. And for even more fun, I think I will add a Randy Rainbow video or two to the list. His ditty to Governor Cuomo, “Andy” is perfection.
The third woman in the Amazing Women Series is Virginia. Her resilience is inspiring to me.
Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. This little jingle from my girl scout days ran through my head as I sat at a round table in the front window of a little diner in my sister’s new hometown in Michigan. Seated around the table were her au courant friends and there was a whole lot of silver going on. Each woman was at least into her seventies and fully engaged in life and their hometown. They gathered here each week following their Thursday morning volunteer work sorting and shelving books at the local library. They come often enough that the waitress called one of the women “raisin toast extra dark”, her weekly order. That woman is Virginia. She sorts the children’s books.
Virginia grew up in Virginia and in 1956 she entered the same small women’s college that her grandmother attended, eventually making the decision to transfer to University of Virginia. She described the university at that point in time as “a bastion of male superiority”, having only about 60 women on campus. She graduated from the University with a degree in English and History and went in search of her future.
With her new degree in hand and feeling adventurous, Virginia knew she wanted to leave her home state. The 1950s and 60s were the height of prosperity in Flint, Michigan. The school district had partnered with C. S. Mott Foundation and the result was a first-class school system and it was seeking teachers. Virginia applied and was immediately hired. She considered teaching in this energetic environment a privilege, but that did not mean it wasn’t demanding. By Friday night, she and her fellow teachers were ready to meet up at The Civic Park Bar and let their hair down. One fateful Friday night, a favorite teaching friend of Virginia showed up with a boyhood friend. Virginia was drawn to this man’s intelligence and willingness to discuss (argue) politics with her.
They married in 1965 and built a rich and fulfilling life together until he passed away in 2016, two months shy of their 51st anniversary. During their marriage, they had two children and politics continued to be a popular topic in their home. Over the years they traveled extensively, both domestically and internationally. Virginia particularly treasures her memories of their bike trips in Europe, driving trips in England, and visiting their daughter who was living in Mexico. They also traveled to Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
Sometime around 2004, Virginia began to notice subtle changes in her husband which became more pronounced, finally resulting in a diagnosis of Parkinson’s in 2006. His mother had suffered the same disease, spending seven years in a nursing home, so Virginia was aware of her future challenges. They made one last trip to Europe, but as he declined, they reached the point where it became necessary for him to stay home. No more dinners out, no more beloved concerts, no theater, no trips. Over time, he was able to do less and less for himself. Virginia was fortunate enough to have help come in and assist with bathing and dressing. Two weeks before his birthday in 2016, a bed opened up for him in a local assisted living facility for a two week stay. Virginia would have a bit of respite from the constant care and regroup. Sadly, he never came home, dying on his birthday.
Although rationally every committed couple realizes that one of them will go first, that still doesn’t prepare the heart. Virginia acknowledges that she is a strong southern woman who is fairly self-sufficient, spending hours reading and attending events. Yet there are times she misses having someone to share moments in her life and the person so much a part of her memories.
I haven’t spent a lot of time with Virginia, but I’ve had drinks at her house, been to the diner with her, and seen her working at the library. She is engaging, funny and whip smart. I asked her how after being married for a lifetime, she adjusted to not having the other person there and how she got on with living her life. For Virginia, it was friends. Too much time alone at home can hang heavy, so you just have to reach out and find something to do. Call a friend to have a cup of coffee. No one available? Take your magazine, go to the coffee shop, and look for friendly connections. She admits it is not always easy, but her loyal friends have carried her through. Those friends include many she has had for years plus some newer ones. When married couples no longer asked her to do things with them, she discovered a brand-new pal to attend concerts with.
As I approach the third act of my life, I question whether the girl scout ditty is quite accurate. Virginia’s new friend she attends concerts with is every bit as important to her as those in her book group that she has known for years. The person she sees on a regular basis on her daily walk and gives a smile and a wave to is often a priceless gift in her day. Silver-haired friends, old and new, can be pure gold and enrich our lives beyond measure. As we grow older, we realize happiness lies not in our bank account, but in our confidants, our sidekicks, and companions. They are our treasures.
In the words of Ms. Virginia,
“There is a part of me that lives with the grief but a part that is still able to sit by the fire, listen to winter music, read beautiful poetry and know that in many ways, I’m blessed.”
It is only week two of my quarantine and I already have to think about what day of the week it is.
Since my gym is closed, I am starting each day with some exercise. I go down the elevator to the lobby and then climb the stairs back up to our tenth-floor apartment where I finish up with some pushups, planks and stretches. My first born suggested that I could try running up the ten flights. I reminded him that I am 64 years old and will be kissing 65 on the mouth very soon and will be quite pleased with myself if I can walk up ten flights without having a heart attack. Curiously, there is a chair on the landing of the eighth floor. I wonder if Mr. Smith put it there in case I need a break.
We have been getting a fair amount of TV time in and the always timely New Yorker had just the right cartoon to help us with our program selection.
It seems redundant to blog about life during COVID-19, but it is inevitable. The constant updates on the news, the recipes on Facebook, and the underlying worry make it impossible to forget. My main worry is Mr. Smith who still goes to the office every day. He is feeling fine, but he has a persistent cough due to allergies and some medication he takes. Even though he is following CDC guidelines, he has seen the leery looks of people around him when he coughs. He asked me to make him some masks. Oh Mr. Smith, be careful what you ask for. I can’t go fabric shopping, so I used what I had on hand. My last sewing project was an apron for my granddaughter, Eleanor, so I used the remnants. I’m sure he will look as fabulous in my inaugural mask as I do!
How are you surviving the quarantine? Are you spending all your time in your pajamas or have you started dressing up to take out the trash?
While fashionable may not be the first word that pops into someone’s mind to describe me, I have always harbored an interest in fashion. It may have sprung from having older sisters who indulgently dressed me up in their prom formals and poodle skirts. I loved donning their crinoline petticoats and felt like a little princess when they topped me off with a piece of their finery. For an adoring 6-year old, nothing was better than having them fuss over me in all their 1950s glamour. For many years they were my muses. I wanted to be just like them and even took a few modeling classes and participated in a fashion show.
It has been many years since this photo was taken and I have danced through many fashion stages. Seventies’ hippie, wannabe yuppie, a much too long dowdy mom stage, and then office chic. And now while I am trying to find my retirement style, we find ourselves in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic. When a trip to the grocery store can put lives in danger, does fashion still matter? This hideous disease is not only hurting our health, but our economy. In Italy, so hard hit by COVID 19, the fashion industry is the second largest contributor to their national economy and I wonder about the long term effects. COVID 19 is slowing almost everything down, including the production of consumer goods. Could this put an end to fast fashion and usher in a return to small-batch beautiful goods, produced and sold by local skilled artisans?
World events have often effected fashion. World War II certainly did. In Julie Summers’s book, Fashion on the Ration: how World War 2 finally let women wear trousers, she illustrates how women’s style changed forever in the 1940s in Britain and beyond. Women were taking up positions and performing services that had previously only been awarded to men. I particularly liked the story about a grandmother’s response to her first air-raid:
“I had lunch today with an old friend I hadn’t seen for a year. She was telling me about the reaction of her grandmother, who is over 80, to her first air-raid. It was a pretty hot one, and the family, huddled together in their shelter, were distinctly anxious about the old lady. As soon as it was over, someone rushed for the brandy, but Granny waved it away and, turning to one of her daughters, said with an air of great determination, ‘Dorothy, I must tell you that I am not going through this again without trousers.'”
World War II changed how my own mother dressed. Before the war, my sister says mom usually wore the ubiquitous midwestern cotton housedress, always with an apron. During the war she worked at U. S. Slicing Machine Company which like many U.S. plants converted temporarily to help make military parts. The women wrapped their hair in colorful bandanas to prevent it getting caught in the machines.
This, along with her coveralls, was also her uniform at the Kingsbury Ordinance Plant where she helped make bombs. The photo below, courtesy of LaPorte County Historical Society, shows some of the female employees who helped the war effort at Kingsbury.
A few years back I came across an article that stuck with me, Stitching History From the Holocaust. A man in Milwaukee was cleaning out his mother’s basement and discovered an old box with an envelope inside. The envelope was sealed with red wax, stamped with a swastika and marked “Inspected by the German Reich.” What he ultimately discovered is the true story of a Prague couple in the 1930s and the unsuccessful efforts to save them from the Nazis. Paul Strnad was a bank clerk in Prague and his wife, Hedwig, was a dress designer. Inside the box was a letter written by Paul to his American cousin, Alvin Strnad, and some of Hedwig’s, known as Hedy, dress designs. The Strnads hoped Hedwig’s designs would be their ticket to safety in the United States. Their efforts and those of their cousin in Milwaukee were sadly unsuccessful and they were transported to the Warsaw Ghetto. Tragically, they either starved to death or were sent to a killing camp.
When Burton Strnad, the son of the now deceased Alvin, found the box, he donated the letter and Hedy’s designs to the Milwaukee Jewish Archives. When the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee opened in 2008, it displayed the letter and dress designs as its centerpiece. A visitor to the museum suggested making dresses from Hedy’s eight existing designs. And they did. The dresses were created with painstaking attention to historical details, taking no short cuts. If you have a few minutes to read the article, you won’t regret it.
When Mr. Smith’s parents married in 1947 his mother, Pat, made her own wedding gown. Working with a very small budget, she answered a for sale ad in the newspaper and purchased a surplus parachute. Constructed of white nylon, it was large enough to supply fabric for her entire dress and was hers for less than $20. The result was certainly as lovely as anything she could have purchased in a store. And Pat being Pat, she used the leftover material to make a christening gown and bonnet worn by all eight of her children. At one point, her wedding dress was on display in the museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Fashion is as much a part of our history as war. It morphs and changes as we struggle, grow and meet challenges. It is inspiring, transformative and often just fun. And sometimes it might make a little girl feel beautiful.
I started my day this past Sunday the same way I start nearly every day when Mr. Smith is home. He makes me a latte just how I like it – three pumps of vanilla syrup and a delicate dusting of cinnamon – and I sit on my cushiony perch and sip it while checking email, etc.
Is it just me, or is your inbox exploding? We may be social distancing, but there is no electronic distancing going on. Dozens of retailers want to sell me just the right outfit to wear while “sheltering in place.” And fashion/lifestyle blogs are currently full of advice on what to wear for video conferences or Facetiming friends or family. Ultimately, I believe we must dress for ourselves as no one look is right for everyone. I was in Washington D.C. last week, helping with the virus chaos of two parents working from home while trying to deal with three energetic boys who are out of school. The nine-year old twins exemplified the practice of dressing for yourself. My grandsons and I went out each day for a long walk. On one particular outing, Eli wore a dapper sport coat he had discovered at Nordstrom Rack and purchased with his own money while his brother, Henry, was happy to go out for his morning constitution still dressed in his dinosaur pajamas. But big points for individuality and self-confidence.
Personally, I find dressing up a bit can help make a gloomy situation a little better. When I woke up on Sunday, I put on my favorite caftan along with diamond studs and a string of pearls to defiantly face another day in a world derailed by COVID-19. I may be wearing pearls instead of a sport coat, but I strutted around my little nest, just as confident as Eli, i.e., Mr. Cool.
Regrettably I’m not leaving on a jet plane any time in the near future, but I am taking a vacation. My brain is on overload and I need a virtual vacation from the virus. Following the example of our local grocery store that is limiting your meat and poultry purchase to two of each item, I am staunchly limiting my news time and news sources, being careful not to get sucked down a black hole. Instead, I’m spending some time sorting through a big box of photos, thinking about vacations past and future, and social distancing from the virus for a bit.
I strongly suggest putting down the remote, stepping away from the TV and getting out your old photos. While going through our overflowing photo box, I’m sorting out some random photos that I’m quite sure won’t be of interest to our children when we’re gone and sending them on to the folks in the photos. I’m hoping a sweet memory from the past will bring a smile.
And since Mr. Smith and I have faith that the current crisis will eventually pass, we are planning a fall vacation focusing on The Bay of Fundy, Gaspe Peninsula and Quebec City. Lots of hiking, photography and writing. Not sure I’ll be topless on the beach this time around, but I hope to have a glass of bubbly or two.
One morning last week I decided to catch up on my neglected and growing pile of paperwork. I called and scheduled a mammogram. I updated my address on an old 401k account. Then I decided to keep going and deal with a letter I had received from a health savings account company I had never heard of before. There were two account cards included and when I checked them online, they had a zero balance. I had no idea what it was all about so I called the company. Of course, my call wasn’t answered by a person but by a computer asking for all sorts of personal information which I wasn’t keen on entering. Not answering the prompts eventually led me to a real person. An affable young man named Grant was happy to assist me. Of course, Grant wanted the same personal information the computer prompts were requesting. Still not sure where these cards came from, I told Grant “This may all be legit, but I”m an old woman and if I give you my social security number and you are not legit, I become the foolish old woman who gave out her personal information and I look like an idiot.” After a brief polite pause, Grant started laughing. And then I started laughing. He was extremely understanding and we worked things out. It was legit and he was very patient with my reluctance to give out my personal information but that is the world we now live in.
And in the time since that phone call, our world has gotten even crazier. I haven’t seen toilet paper in the grocery store for over a week and last time I shopped, I was shocked at all the barren shelves. People are stock piling in anticipation of hunkering down in social isolation. There is none of the excited uncertainty of preparing for a big snow storm like in the Campbell’s Soup commercial where the mom grabbed extra soup and extra wine when the forecast changed from 10″ to 16″ of snow. Instead of a snowstorm, we are preparing for COVID-19 pandemic. There is a heavy sense of dread and a fear of uncertainty in the air.
So you may be in need of some distraction. If so, I highly recommend settling in with some popcorn and your favorite beverage and watching Knives Out. It’s highly entertaining, a great escape from all that’s going on, and Daniel Craig is delightful. Mr. Smith and I also spent an afternoon watching Ford vs. Ferrari. Maybe it’s because he was a Detroit boy and his father worked at Ford Motor for most of his career, but we also found it well worth the watch. And if you want a movie that illustrates kindness triumphing over cynicism, give A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood a try.
And if movies aren’t your thing, there’s always reading. Books have always been my ultimate diversion. For the hour or two curled up with my book, I can forget to worry about the world.
Restaurants are closed, my gym is closed, and I’m sure it will be a while before I can go for a pedicure. But even while adjusting to the new normal, I’m aware of how fortunate I am. While irritated that I had to cancel a trip to see my granddaughters, I can take advantage of FaceTime and see their sweet faces and listen to the giggles while Slick Grandpa Nick goes upside down. My sister and I were planning a week together to do some sewing projects that isn’t going to happen right now, but we can still chat, email, text and stay in touch. While the world is crazy right now, it is still wonderful. For now Mr. Smith and I have plenty of food, an adequate wine supply and each other. We are lucky people.