A Word From the Publisher
Welcome to the second Love in the Time of Corona special issue. We have received word from many of you that these issues are having the effect we hoped they’d have. In this time of enforced seclusion and separateness, the prose that Persimmon Tree has published is brightening days, easing the fears of night, and bringing the pleasure of virtual community and companionship to you, our readers. We on the Board of Editors are delighted – and gratified — to be a part of this.
This has been a particularly trying time to be apart from friends and family. In the last week, we have celebrated both Passover, when it seems impossible that families will not gather together around a festive and holy table, and Easter, when it seems improbable not to be in church, together, mourning death and celebrating life.
But, we do have these essays and stories to take us out of our solitude and bring us into communion with writers who, through the act of describing what we are also going through, become our friends and confidantes. As we’re reading, it almost feels as if we are in the same room, across the dinner table or in the next pew.
We are publishing not only this second installment, but a third as well. The third will be available next week. We can do this because we received so many submissions that were wonderfully acute and astoundingly creative. We have only two regrets. The first is that, even in three installments, we are unable to publish everything we received. The second is that, because there were so many, and we are working against time to get these issues to you weekly, we are unable at this time to send individual emails to those who did not get published.
Our deepest thanks again to all who submitted something for these special issues. Every submission we received was a joy and a gift. Special thanks to the members of our Board of Editors whose help with this and every issue is invaluable: Kitty Cunningham contributed an essay; Elizabeth (EZ) Zimmer and Marion Leopold read (and enjoyed) so many of your contributions, and then faced the hard task of working with me to choose which would go in this and the next issue; Gena Raps, concert pianist and teacher (when she is not busy with Persimmon), has given us links to another of her recordings. Finally, we are also featuring in this section a very cheery burst of sunshine by Jeannette DesBoine and its opposite, a very fierce goddess (perhaps) by Barbara Wallace. The flowers that grace the top of this section were photographed by Windflower on a solitary, coronal walk, and, yes, I’m sure she wore a mask. There is one more work of art below, but I can’t tell you about that one here without spoiling the surprise.
Please, enjoy reading, looking at, and listening to everything we have gathered for you in this issue. Let it take you out of your solitude for a few moments, and remind you that, even when physically separated, we are part of a productive community of older women. There is a space at the end of this prose section for your comment. Please leave one. Or several. That is another way we can be together for each other.
You will also enjoy the poetry section of this issue. You’ll find it every bit as engrossing, as comforting, as surprising, and as interesting as the prose you have just read. And you’ll find more musical and other surprises there as well.
Mercedes is living in an era of fragmentation, of dispersals. People flee from violence in lands they once called home. Fires, floods, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes destroy towns and lives. All over the world people are dying from a shiny new implacable virus. She lives in one of the epicenters of the pandemic. She doesn’t have the virus, but it’s infected her mind with anxiety. The virus colors her thoughts. Orange. Code Orange. Red. Blood Red.
Shortly after her 80th birthday a massive flareup of acute pain coursed throughout Mercedes’ body. Getting out of bed was an effort, getting dressed was an effort, getting up from a chair to go to the lobby to pick up the mail was an effort. She needed pliers to turn on the stove. Diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. Stress may be the cause, the doctor tells her. Calm down. Steroids and medication relieve the pain, bring back her strength, but damage her liver and kidneys. Her white cell count is low.
Alone in self-imposed quarantine, she writes. She writes letters to judges and officials respectfully asking that immigrants be released from jail and not be deported from the U.S. where they have made a new home. She writes stories about places and people and things and about her own life. She writes about her past adversities and losses. She writes to remind herself that she’s overcome hard times before. She writes to survive, to summon hope once again, as she has done since she was first able to put words on paper. The stories from her childhood are long lost, displaced, discarded, their contents forgotten. And yet…
There is one story Mercedes never, ever forgets. A little girl was chopped into teensy, teensy pieces. The little bits of her were sprinkled throughout the whole wide world. And that is why, the story concludes, there is hope everywhere, scattered and unseen.
Dismemberment is a brutal act, but she doesn’t remember her story as being about violence or hurt, although the Father was known for his uncontrollable rages and she was a weak, sickly child prone to accidents. Yet no agonizing laceration or fear was part of her story. Hope. Hope far and wide.
She was a navy brat, an only child shuttled from place to place, country to country, language to language. She was looked after by a rotating series of indigenous servants hired by the Mother who never could learn a foreign language. The Father was mostly absent, sealed away on a submarine in the depths of the ocean. Was her story about simply existing, being alive in places left behind and those to come?
Now, true to that childhood story, she sprinkles bits of hope throughout the whole wide world as she writes letters and petitions and emails to keep hope alive for immigrants, prisoners, bees, wolves, bears, trees––all living things, including herself. Teeny pieces are scattered on the World Wide Web.
During World War II my mother was confined to her house with a seven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl. Our father was overseas, and she was bored, bored, bored – until she hit on this idea. Every day she would cook a meal where the ingredients would all begin with the same letter. In fact, she would go through the alphabet! It was more than 70 years ago; I do not remember much except for fish, ferns and fried potatoes, so I am not sure whether she ever got to zucchini and zuppa Inglese. But I do know that she became much happier and more fulfilled when she became a volunteer nurse’s aide at the local hospital.
I stoop to read a message scrawled in pink chalk on a sidewalk near my apartment. Today is a good day to smile. Next to these encouraging words is a lopsided yellow circle with blue rays sticking out.
The artist probably attends the elementary school on the same block. Its doors have been closed for three weeks now, playground and basketball court padlocked. I turn the corner in my working-class Chicago suburb and notice that some crocuses have pushed through, their majestic purple contrasting with dark earth. That is what this is about, pushing through.
I return to my home office, a weathered dining table covered with piles of loose-leaf paper and my cat, who craves the warmth of my laptop. I dial in to my morning conference call with my colleagues. I am a part of the fund-raising team for a health care system now bracing for the worst. Our leader reads the daily report from the command center. We hear the numbers of diagnosed patients. The number of those in ICU. The number of ventilators left. The number of patients who have died. Three today. Our lives are now lived in numbers, predictive analytics, flattening the curve.
When the call is over, I tap out emails to local companies who might donate N95 masks, iPads, hand held heart monitors, dinners for nurses on the late shift, thermometers. We will run out of surgical gowns, so I am on a mission to find plastic raincoats that can be wiped down for our doctors and nurses. The customer service manager of a local Target store checks her stock, but there are only children’s sizes. The hunt leads me to strange places.
A sympathetic employee named Mark headquartered in the Philippines suggests that I contact “engagement leaders” in local stores to organize a collection. Why is a major US health care system forced to beg for raincoats from Target?
After shutting down my computer I walk to a nearby Mexican restaurant with a takeout window. Good to get more steps in and support my local business. I had phoned in my order. When I arrive, the cook hands me a plastic bag containing my taco dinner: two chicken and an avocado. Rice and beans. I pay with a credit card and put three dollars in a rusty coffee can. The cook flashes the weary smile of someone who has worked long hours on his feet. One more time, he opens the window that separates us. “Be safe out there,” he gently warns.
When I get home, I place a lit candle scented with applewood on my curb. By the grace of God, we will push through.
Life in Plague Town
When I walk with my friend — six feet behind her like Eurydice — I pretend I understand what she’s saying though she’s careful not to turn her head. When I see neighbors walking toward me and I cover my face and cross to the other side of the street, no one is offended. When the grocery store deliveryman says he’s really a lecturer at a local college who’s researching delivery systems for his work in Rwanda, I’m barely surprised.
When a young Afghan woman I have only read about gets in touch by email because I posted an article about her three years ago on my blog, it almost seems normal. The news that she is no longer at college in Bangladesh but living 30 minutes away from me in New England occasions only a raised eyebrow.
Sometimes I do feel mildly curious about what comes out of my mouth now that I’m coaching her in English for her grad school applications. She asks over Skype or WhatsApp, “How do you use ‘mitigate’ in a sentence?” and I say, “It’s unlikely the US will mitigate the Covid-19 death rate anytime soon.” She says, “What about ‘embellish’?” I respond, “Whenever the guy in Washington talks about the virus, he embellishes the truth.” She asks, “How should I use ‘empirical’ in a sentence?” I answer, “I myself listen to scientists who study coronavirus and report empirical facts.”
I like helping immigrants with English and have volunteered in ESL classes since I retired. Those classes are now online, and the teacher has invited me to post topics in Google Classroom that students could write about. I posted a 13-minute video by a physician showing shut-ins how to disinfect every new thing that comes into the house. A student from Cambodia replied that she was inspired to start following the doctor’s suggestions. The other students were noticeably silent, perhaps not sure about washing each piece of fruit the same way the CDC says you should wash your hands.
Now as I stand at the kitchen sink singing “Happy Birthday, Dear Orange” all the way through twice while soaping a piece of fruit, I wonder what comes after this time in my life. If a guy in my house who’s congenitally averse to a mothering tone continues to rant about leaders who left us unprepared, will I have been able for weeks and maybe months to avoid saying, “I’m so sorry, dear. I understand how afraid you are.”?
Now, that would surprise me.
There is something calming about being able to recognize death as a natural part of life. My father, at 79 with cancer of the bladder, chose not to undergo chemotherapy. He said he had lived a good life and did not want to prolong it at all costs and die in hospital. I always respected that choice, even if we would have loved to have him with us a little longer.
I do not want to be kept alive artificially, but would I refuse chemotherapy, like my father? And in this time of corona, when the need for ventilators will probably far exceed the supply, would I, at 72, be ready to sign a statement, as suggested by the writer Lesley Hazleton on her Facebook page, willingly granting treatment priority to a younger person who has a statistically better chance to survive?
I certainly like the thought of relieving the medical staff of the triage dilemma. But don’t I want to live? I am healthy and fit, and there is still much I want to accomplish. My loved ones would not want to lose me and might still depend on me. Would I choose to give this up without a fight, in order to let an anonymous younger man or woman live?
A man in his late thirties posts on Facebook he is relieved by the thought that most of the deaths from corona are people already beyond their life expectancy, people who are going to die soon anyway. In one sweep, he dismisses all of us, the older generation, as dispensable. Doesn’t such a thought lead to eugenics, to social Darwinism? To sacrificing the old for the sake of the economy?
So what is the difference, when Lesley Hazleton says she has lived a full life and would be willing to let a younger person live instead of her? Is it a question of agency? That I am in control and so can valiantly clear the conscience of a doctor?
Concerned for the wellbeing of a dear friend who lives in a little village in the center of Italy, my son gave him a call. The friend spoke of all the good things that the world will awaken to after the pandemic. Adding, “for those of us who survive.” My son, a filmmaker with a poetic imagination, portrayed his 70-year-old friend sitting peacefully in his garden, waiting for the plague to catch up with him, as it ravages through the towns and villages of Italy.
Where I live, that hooded figure of death has not wreaked the same havoc yet, but perhaps it is still to come. Can I sit here, calmly, waiting for that knock on the door, and delight in the new awakening it will make possible for the young?
Intermezzo in a Major, Op. 118, No. 2
I dreamt that each of us could have physical contact only with 14 people, but I forgot, forgot the virus too, and went to see my friends Eric and Mika and hugged them. Hugging felt so good, the awakening of arms and hands hugging friends, the touch of friendship. I remembered hugging other friends, in Italy, in America, and felt full of longing.
Then I remembered: only 14 allowed. Quick. Give up two of the old 14, make room for Eric and Mika, or it will be a catastrophe.
But I couldn’t, just couldn’t remember the ones I had originally chosen as my precious 14.
I surrendered. The end would come.
It Ain’t All Bad, Is It?
I have said that we’ve been giving Mother salt for sugar. It looks like now we’re getting some salt. Salty tears weeping into our scant supply of lotion infused tissues. Like everything, the pandemic isn’t all bad: I have escaped bumper to bumper scrambling to arrive early to work in search of one of the rare disabled places in our parking garage, where most spots are reserved for able-bodied managers. More scarce than toilet paper, those slots marked red for handicapped. On ordinary workdays, that is.
There are no ordinary workdays now. There are no ordinary days. There are no ordinary nights. Everything is strange. Streets and shelves are eerily empty. Jim Morrison said people are strange; Ian and Sylvia said: love is strange.
I’ve witnessed a lot of love emerging: I’ve seen the best in most, the worst in a few.
My family, friends, and co-workers are reaching out, helping where they can. My neighborhood is standing up, coming through, pulling together. Our president is slinking along in his slime — unchanged. Unmoved by this calamity claiming countless lives, he searches for ways to enrich his businesses. For ways to help his family prosper. Looking out for number one. The emperor is running naked in the streets, incapable of feeling embarrassment, unable to experience empathy.
Let’s hope the pandemic will give him the end of his tyrannical rule. Take from him the power he has abused and misused.
From me it has stolen all my hugs and kisses. I miss ‘em. It’s given me technical fatigue (read that as: 19 nervous breakdowns) as I try my best to make my remote features function so I can continue to perform my job.
Here’s a good thing: the pandemic has broken some of my bad habits. It’s curtailing “retail therapy.” No longer can I roam the thrift shops, not out of need but for the thrill of the find. No recreational shopping. No shopping. Except by proxy. It’s removed some of my prissy attitudes about organic food and non-toxic cleaners. It’s given me perspective. So many things I can do without. Those hugs and kisses are the hardest.
The pandemic has given me gratitude galore. I pray it doesn’t give me the deadly virus. And that, if it does, I do not pass it along.
Memories – Spanish Flu – 1918
My mother was six, quarantined with her family in their home in a NYC suburb. She was sad because school was closed. She missed her friends and her teacher as she tried to make up “work” to fill her days. She, her baby brother, and her three-year-old sister were allowed to be out only in the back yard. The front porch, forbidden to them, was reserved for food deliveries.
My grandmother, attempting to be jocular, repeated with each delivery “Here comes the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker!” My mother knew about butchers and bakers, but was at a loss to identify the candlestick maker. Where were the candlesticks? Who was the maker?
Her little sister, hearing the knock at the door and the retreating footsteps, began galloping around the dining room table, screaming the mantra, knowing at a tedious time that she had an audience and could make them laugh. She chanted it again and again in her raucous, baby voice, “the dutcher the raker, the candleshtick maker.” Of course she had no idea what it meant, but her toddler zest and spirit lightened up a miserable time and for a little while the miasma of fear was lifted.
I don’t know how long the plague continued, but the family survived that catastrophic time, and many years later my mother shared her early memory with me. It seemed too dramatic to be possible that history could repeat itself with our modern plague.
But, now, as I am nearing 80, it has. I am grateful for the love of my family, their care of me and the hope that we will move on together. We did not choose these frightful times to realize the power of love, but it remains a shining light in a time of darkness.
No Ode to Covid
When the first coronavirus cases popped up on the West Coast, I’d been putting up with a dry cough for a month, thinking it would run its course any day then. Instead, it morphed into pneumonia. Two rounds of antibiotics have gotten me back on track, but in the interim my energy level and writing output were exceedingly low. I sat around reading and revising last year’s poems, as unproductive an activity as that aggravating cough.
I took extra seriously the warnings to social distance and then self-isolate, aware of the doctor’s reminder that my immune system had been weakened, the virus would inevitably show up here in eastern NC and, After all, you’re seventy-five…
COVID-19 took over the news. I needed an escape. In an unexpected moment, one presented itself. Before Christmas, for no particular reason, I’d bought a bunch of fifty-cent frames at a thrift store. Now it dawned on me that I could illustrate and frame one of my haiku. The grandkids’ colored pencils were handy, so I used those. The result wasn’t too bad; the next day I did another. Each mini project took about two hours of total concentration. To date there’s a stack of fifteen illustrated shorts; a couple of longer poems have been completed, too.
Hmm, maybe I should rethink the title of this essay. After all, positive results for me are owed to COVID-19.