Monthly Archives: December 2020

Christmas, Memories, Covid, and Solitude

Merry Christmas!

Growing up, our parents took us to midnight mass, so we could stay home on Christmas morning. It was also a good way to ensure we’d all be fast asleep when Santa came during the night.

Santa would bring toys, and new board games which our Dad always loved to play. Fisher Price farms, castles and houses, Madame Alexander dolls, books, trains, socks and underwear … Santa always knew what we needed and (sometimes) what we wanted.

We kids gave each other candy bars or handmade items. Fifty years later, I still have a little stuffed bear sitting on top of a semi-circle of wood into which my initials are carved. Spending money wasn’t the point for us at Christmas. 

We weren’t a restrained family, opening one gift each on Christmas Eve, and then, on Christmas Day, after breakfast, sitting together and watching as each present is opened one at a time to a chorus of approving oohs and ahs. That was definitely not us … not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of Christmas.

No. First of all, we couldn’t open anything before Christmas morning, although one of my sisters would shake, poke and prod her gifts to try to guess its contents. Then, on Christmas morning, we all had to be gathered together at the top of the stairs before anyone could go down. This included Grandmom, so the wait would become excruciating. 

“GrandMOM, hurry!” 

Once she emerged, with her carefully set hair out of its sleeping net and her robe buttoned at her neck, the kids barreled down the stairs and flew into the living room, where Santa had organized all the presents into individual piles and where the large Christmas tree filled one corner. You found your pile, and then the room erupted into a wild 15 minutes of paper-tearing, whoo-hoos, thank-yous and smiles.

The stockings then called, hanging from nails above the fireplace, each with a mandarin orange in the toe, and stuffed with nuts and candy. Oh, that river of candy! Candy only showed up for us three times a year, on Halloween, Christmas and Easter. When it did, there were no restraints on how much we could eat at once.

Our stockings didn’t have gifts in them, and I don’t remember much chocolate either. Lots of the 60s and 70s candy wasn’t individually wrapped. We’d get those weird, spongy, orange peanuts, root-beer barrels, peppermints, filled and unfilled hard Christmas candies, Whoppers, Mary Janes, caramels with white cream, gumdrops, Neccos, black and red licorice, jawbreakers, Sugar Daddies and candy canes. I’m sure there were more kinds, but those are the ones I remember best. 

Once the presents were opened, our dad would make eggs to order, asking each kid how we’d like them. The day would then pass in rounds of games, meals, and playing outside, especially if there was snow, or curled up on a couch reading a new book.

The nostalgia of our childhoods is painted at the time with the newness of every experience. I saw it manifest with my niece and nephew, who later in their teens would say, “We always would bake cookies and then sit close by the fire to eat them.” 

This happened once, when they were toddlers. But for them, it was a huge memory. 

Memory is curious and tricky. Those so-short years of childhood remain the most defining for so many. At two or three, we start making sense of what’s going on around us. At around eight, we are old enough to understand things, and to have certain freedoms, but not to have any responsibilities yet. Around twelve or thirteen, we’re “old hats” at everything. We are self-aware, self-defining, on our road, and itching to get out and do what we want to do. We think we know everything.

There’s five more years, though, mostly consumed by school and self-discovery, and then, boom! You’re eighteen and an “adult.” The childhood memories have become cemented into a, “this is how it was,” glossed picture. Even that fades in intensity over time until to remember anything visceral about the first years beyond those touchstone photos is almost impossible. Once in a while, a breeze of memory carries with it a fleeting sense of how it really felt, back then, but it’s the “huge” memories that really take center stage.

Our adult years start clicking by, faster and faster, and we stop remembering things. Is it because we don’t do anything new so nothing becomes huge in our memory? Or is it that we just don’t have time to think much, and nothing stands out much, with the day’s every waking moment filled with rushing, working and chores?

In these strange Covid days, I have time to be writing about memories of Christmas on Christmas Eve.

Childhood Christmas memories are painted with that sweet magical haze, whereas my adult memories of Christmas morphed, like most grown-ups’, into memories with little magic and lots of work.

Since my early teen years, I was the family’s Santa’s Helper, until gradually my parents did none of the Christmas decorating or getting the rooms ready for the onslaught. Christmas Eve became consumed by presents-wrapping, stocking-stuffing and pile-making. I fell asleep at 4 or 5 am and experienced Christmas through a fog of exhaustion.

This year, for the first time in my 56 years, I am completely alone on Christmas Eve. Tucked into my new home, the quiet rain pattering on the roof, I have a breath of perspective.

Over the last two days, I made cookies, and plan to deliver them tomorrow to my friends and neighbors. Chocolate chip, butterscotch chip, sugar cookies and the ever-favorite Viennese crescents. I didn’t make our family’s traditional Split Seconds cookies because the jelly would stick to other cookies in the box, nor did I make the candy-cane cookies, because I never liked them much, they being too dry for my taste, nor did I make the mocha balls, since they have to stay refrigerated.

But I had a fun Christmas kitchen, with several rounds of, “Okay, now clean it all up and start a new recipe.”

Covid has made Christmas into a solitary experience for me this year. Am I sad? I suppose a bit … I had a little cry on the couch earlier tonight. But it was a short one. I am so grateful for everything, it’s hard to feel sad for long.

Now that our parents died, my family groups live far from each other, but most of us stay in touch via texts, online games and the random phone call.

These days, I could be focusing on what’s missing, what I don’t have, who I’m not seeing, what I’m not doing, but when there are so many everywhere who are in pain, who are sick and dying, who have just lost someone, who are in financial distress, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for the warmth in my home, the softness of my blankets and that there is food in my refrigerator and potable water in my faucets.

I could be sad, spending this first Christmas in my whole life all alone. But I was able to spend two days making cookies. Tomorrow, I’ll frost the sugar cookies, put them in pretty red cookie boxes, deliver them to neighbors and drive to my friends’ homes to spread a little Christmas cookie cheer. From a distance, with a mask on. It’s a weird Christmas, that’s for sure, but I’m not sad, I’m grateful.

Grateful for the screeching joy of my childhood Christmases, grateful for the adult Christmases of two-table-sized spectacular family meals, the little ones of the next generation running around with eyes wide at the joyous gatherings and raucous pinochle games, and grateful for this solitary Christmas, safe and warm in my home.

The clock now has ticked for me, as usual, into the wee hours on Christmas Eve. Old habits die hard! 

So, as a veteran Santa’s Helper, I know I can pass on this message from Santa:

“HO HO HO! Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!”

Masks, Politics and Workmen

Two months ago, I called my regular plumbing company to fix a leaking bathroom faucet, to fix an outdoor hose that leaked when in use, and to tighten two toilet seats.

When the plumber showed up, he asked if I wanted him to wear a mask. This being October, eight months into the 2020 Global Pandemic, I said, yes, please, I have a heart condition. 

Within two weeks of his visit, the bathroom sink was intermittently dripping, the toilet seats were sliding sideways again, and the pipe on the inside of the house that controls water to the outdoor spigot had started dripping.

When he returned, he came to my door wearing a Trump mask. 

Now, without one political item on display, my house’s decor nonetheless reflects clearly that mine is not a Republican household. He remembered I wanted him to wear a mask, but the passive-aggressive visual was coupled with his obvious irritation that his work had been questioned.

Did he remember I have a heart condition? I don’t know, but with his politics displayed on his face as he spoke to me, I knew he most probably hangs out mask-less with everyone on “his side” of the mask question. His nonverbal display that he is a Trump supporter meant I learned his presence in my house carried a higher risk to me.

Ten minutes into his work on the bathroom sink, he took his mask off, and proceeded to work for an hour in my home without wearing his mask. 

A Trump supporter, breathing mask-less in my home for an hour.

Why didn’t I tell him to put it back on? I’m an older female who lives alone, who doesn’t like confrontation, who has been a hermit for eight months, who is often socially inept, and who has an angry plumber working on a job he already tried to fix once before. I didn’t say anything.

A Trump supporter, breathing mask-less in my home for an hour.

I’d been a germaphobe already for years, but recently developed a heart issue, so I’ve been extra careful since last March 2020, when I put myself into isolation. I had been stocking up since February, way before anyone in my circles was worried about Covid. For months, I wore my mask to cross the street to the mailbox. I lost a budding relationship with someone who also prefers to live mask-less, “not in fear”.

On the day the plumber came into my home, aside from a Sunday job I had outdoors during the summer, where I wore an n95 and used tons of hand sanitizer, I have been isolated for nine months. I’ve seen almost no friends or family, I’ve eaten out three times, and I’m doing what I can do to live through this pandemic. I’m a solitary person, so I’ve been busy with projects and I’m not particularly sad to be alone.

I’m not a scaredy-cat. I don’t “live in fear,” although this virus scares the sh*t out of me. Why does it scare me? Because up until now there’s been no vaccine.

I’m not a fearful person, I’m just careful. I’m an adventurer, a wild one, a roamer, a trier-of-everything, an anthropologist. I’ve traveled (alone) through most of the United States, to Egypt, to half of Europe, to the Caribbean. I’m not just a traveler, I’ve also lived (alone) in France and in Mexico and in New York City. I’ve trekked through the jungle alone, counting snakes. I’ve gained entry to urban, rural and remote environments that most people don’t even know about. I don’t live in fear.

However, to be able to land in Egypt, where I finished my novel, and to land in Mexico, where, alone, I made a photographic survey of 25 archaeological sites, I needed tons of vaccines for diseases that don’t show up much in America. Some vaccines took three visits. They stuck vaccines in my arms and thighs and butt. Lots of them, for Tetanus, Typhoid, Hepatitis A, Rabies, Meningococcal Meningitis, Hepatitis B, Malaria Prophylaxis, Yellow Fever, Diphtheria and Pertussis, Polio Booster and more.  

Right now, outside in the apple pie and baseball American world I grew up in, there is a deadly disease in the air, just like in those foreign lands, a disease for which our bodies have NO protection. It’s the freakin’ luck of the draw whether you survive it or not. 

I can’t imagine saying to the Egyptian or Mexican authorities, eh, no thanks, I don’t need or want the vaccine you require me to have in order to enter, and I don’t care if I catch this thing that could kill me, just stamp my passport.

In the movie Contagion, when Dustin Hoffman looks up at the vent and realizes the disease is airborne, he’s terrified. That’s what Covid is! Airborne! How isn’t everyone terrified?

This time, next week, if I’m not careful, I might be in an ICU bed. Is my Will up to date? Is my house clean? What if this time next week I am on a ventilator? Is everything in place? Who will feed my cat and water my plants? If I die, will the cat end up in a shelter? Are the dishes done? 

No, I don’t live in fear, because I do everything possible to stay safe no matter what country I’m in or what I’m doing. However, this man instilled in me a state of baseline terror for the 14-day incubation period. I did update my Will, and wrote down my account numbers and passwords for my executor.

Right after he left, I sprayed Febreeze everywhere, shut the bathroom door and worked upstairs for several hours before Cloroxing the bathroom. But I’ve read enough of the studies to know if he was an asymptomatic carrier, I still might have caught it. Sure, I was wearing my mask, but I wasn’t wearing goggles or ear coverings. The windows in the house weren’t open. There wasn’t great ventilation. There could be pockets of his breath floating around the house.

Here is the crux of the problem. With half our population believing masks don’t matter, they will just keep giving it to each other, the other mask-less ones. But they will also give it to at-risk, hyper-careful people like me, people who are health-compromised and more vulnerable to this virus.

The shredding of our civil society we are observing in increasingly hostile exchanges is partially rooted in the bold wearing of political affiliation symbols.

Don’t we all remember how we were taught we shouldn’t talk about politics or religion in mixed company, i.e. people you aren’t sure agree with you? There’s a reason for old adages. Keep your politics to yourself. Keep your religion to yourself. 

The political sign wars between neighbors is sad to see. Once living peacefully side-by-side for years, now they can’t stand each other. I watched one corner near me start with one or two signs, and by the end of the campaign period, almost every house had a Biden or a Trump sign. Why does my neighbor need to know my political affiliation? Will it change their political affiliation? No. So why advertise it? All it does is antagonize these days.

But, especially important, please, please, PLEASE, if you are a workman coming into someone’s home, a place the homeowners have been keeping as virus-free as possible, keep your mask on. You’re in someone else’s space. Care. You should have shoe coverings too.

Imagine it like cigarette smoke. You can smell it from across the room because it’s floating on the air. If you’re sitting right opposite someone, it’ll be much more pervasive. Covid-19 particles float in the air too. We just can’t smell them. When you wear a mask, you keep the Covid particles from floating out into the air on your breath. Normal, cloth masks don’t catch them all, no. But the volume of them and therefore their potency is enormously diminished.

Your political mask? The public displays of private political affiliation? Put it all away. Pack it in the closet. Go vote when it’s time, but otherwise stop it. Especially at your job. Get a friendly mask. When you’re in mixed company, be friendly. Talk about sports … gardening … the weather. Whatever side people are on, we’re Americans first. Make an apple pie. Share it.