March 19. It was the first day of spring. Cardinals trilled at dawn. Trees were starting to smudge pink, white and green. I smelled mulch, and fresh, overturned earth. Beauty and hope were in the air.
And there too was the invisible dread, the dark underside, the quietly, stealthily spreading Covid-19. I wondered if it was safe to have contact with friends across the street, across town, those recently returned from other states and foreign ports? President Trump had recently declared a national emergency.
My husband, John, and I qualify as “elders,” however much I resist the label. John has become super vigilant, busy cleaning with bleach, rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizers. He’s bought masks and gloves. He’s afraid that we can’t outsmart the virus.
I miss volunteering and tutoring refugees. I feel unfocused, useless, separated from the world; what to do in these days of the coronavirus.
Each morning John dutifully goes to his vegetable garden to ready the ground for planting. Boston lettuce, kale, snap peas and mache have sprouted. Later he will hoe the dirt and dig in tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, and squash plants.
“Why don’t you plant something,” suggested our son, Jamie. I used to joke that “nature made me nervous,” preferring indoor activities. My last gardening effort was a soybean in a Dixie cup for a freshman botany class in college.
When John made his next trip to the gardening center, I bought seeds for dill, endive, arugula, cleome and a pink and red “hummingbird flower mixture.”
With the patience of a grandfather to a toddler, John showed me how to scatter seeds in neat rows and gently cover them with potting soil and water. Now to wait.
And to avoid the hourly “breaking news” of more shut downs and deaths; the sirens coming ever closer. By now we knew of the virulent outbreaks in China, Italy and Iran. Latin America had its first Covid-19. Cases spiked in Europe. The epicenter moved to Manhattan where 1,900 have died, their body bag images on the nightly news.
That afternoon, John and I walked in our neighborhood. A little girl had drawn a giant daffodil on her driveway above the directive, “Choose Joy!” She offered daffodils from a basket with the sign, “Free. Take one.” We hesitated. In what world does one refuse flowers from a trusting child?
I check on my plants. And mostly stay inside.
Here wait boxes of family letters and papers to read and sort, a project begun by my mother decades ago and far from finished at her death in 1981. Over time, I’d slowly pawed my way through the dusty boxes and made some forty albums but saw no end in sight.
Many of the letters were written over 100 years ago, their subject family—new babies, buggy rides, visits for dinner or stays for weeks at a time. One mentioned a garden crop of corn, string beans and tomatoes.
Time passed slowly. However faded the perfect penmanship, there’s a respectful formality in the letters’ tone and language. Correspondents waited patiently for answers that would now take seconds on e-mail. They spread the news and affections as though their words mattered. The very fact that I am reading these letters after a century’s sequester offers me hope of survival.
Still it’s hard to dodge the headlines. By March 30, Virginia joined Maryland and Washington, D.C. residents in being ordered to stay home. John and I took a long drive in the country. We passed peach orchards, ribbons of pink as far as the foothills.
On Palm Sunday, the U.S. death toll due to the coronavirus hit over 10,000, the U.S. having more cases than any other country. We drove the back roads, passing bikers in high gear. The breezes were warm with a mild sweetness. I wondered what might be lurking in those innocent looking dogwood trees and the ponds that reflected a clear blue sky.
“Socially isolate and connect, connect, connect with those who matter to you,” advised a TV psychologist with a seeming mixed message. Feeling isolated, I discovered FaceTime and couldn’t stop dialing. We talked to old friends in town as well as in Chicago and Florida. Easter Sunday, I watched a service from the National Cathedral, and later Zoomed with our children. Our virtual visits proved to be restorative and better than the phone alone. We were, in fact, in it together.
For now, I’m fighting the fates washing my hands, checking on friends and family, reading vintage letters and peeking at my plants in the garden. Fresh baby leaves are surfacing in a row. “To plant a garden,” said some wise soul, “is to believe in tomorrow.”
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