Still Life on Lanai, painting by Marcella Peralta Simon
We talked about the day’s news, and the pandemic was frequently the main story. I worried about the number of new cases as our small seaside town was increasingly filling with tourists. He was adamant that we could avoid the disease if we wore masks, kept socially distanced, and stayed home. In our seventies, we were both afraid. But there was comfort sitting at a high-top table under the blue-and-white-striped awning that gave just enough shade to let us tolerate the hot evenings. Our cat curled under the leaves of the basil plant, while our dog sprawled with his nose through the railing, keeping lookout for neighbor dogs. We listened to Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Bayou or James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. A few times I ran the entire soundtrack of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Its rhythm pulsed in my ears well into the night.
Dick and I agreed that, of all the cancellations, the hardest were those with our families. After a Zoom meeting with our kids, I described the aching loneliness I felt knowing we wouldn’t be traveling to their home in Minnesota for Christmas or our grandsons’ birthdays. When we canceled our Key West rental house for the winter, I said, “The worst thing is, it seems like we won’t ever get back to normal.” He poured me another glass of wine.
Race was a frequent topic for us those evenings, especially after the Memorial Day killing in Minneapolis that ignited protests across the country. We had texted our kids to make sure they were safe, then followed the news from our old hometown relentlessly, saddened at pervasive racism in the city’s institutions. We’d both been part of the civil rights movement there in the ‘60s.
I started reading books on white privilege and racism and felt shame at how ignorant I was. But since Dick and I had long discussed these issues— slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings—I felt comfortable and comforted talking to him. He too was shocked to learn that the Nazis modeled their regime of white supremacy on American laws and policies on segregation and miscegenation. I told him I was trying to write an essay that captured what I was learning. He asked how I would integrate this information. Afterwards he started emailing me articles from online journals he knew I wouldn’t otherwise see. And I would leave the Washington Post open on the kitchen counter with items highlighted for him. While we had always talked to each other about politics and civil rights, we both felt an urgency to learn more, to figure out what we might do. Some evenings we were still talking as the sun slid behind the roof of the townhouse across the canal.
As summer slipped into fall we spoke of how fortunate we are to live where we can stay at home and still be outside on this deck. In the eleven years we’ve lived here, we’ve used the deck when we had guests, but rarely did the two of us sit out here for any length of time. Or not together. Dick had coffee there in the morning; I read there some afternoons.
As the months passed, Dick and I began to see each other differently. I noticed when he had a new haircut; I’d still been afraid to go to the salon. He told me he preferred my nails natural. We paid attention to this new world in which we’d been confined, commenting on the intense and varied greens in the trees and shrubs that line both sides of the canal, noting the animals we saw: sometimes a deer or a fox, always eight or nine squirrels catapulting from pine to persimmon to cedar. We marveled at how the two mandevillas we potted in May had twined their vines through the railings from one end of the deck to the other and, well into the autumn, exploded with the red trumpet-shaped blossoms that had been so attractive to the hummingbirds in summer.
And oh, the birds. I guess in our busy previous lives we never sat out here long enough to pick up their incredible cacophony of sounds. Hummingbirds whistling past our heads as they headed for the red mandevilla blossoms; the cardinals’ chew, chew, pichew; a blue jay screaming a shrill jaaaaay warning; and the osprey’s teelee, a sweet sound I didn’t expect from a bird of prey. We started keeping the bird book handy for these evening shows.
I’ve always loved watching birds, and frequently over the years came home from a morning run excited to share how many great blue herons I’d seen on the nearby Silver Lake, where the Canada geese flew in a vee over my head or a bald eagle perched on a rooftop near the ocean. My husband’s response was often just a nod. In the long first summer of COVID, though, he made trips to Ace Hardware for birdseed and suet and kept the feeders filled. He cooked sugar syrup for the hummingbird feeder that hangs outside my writing window and asked me for a report on visits. We’d had the bird feeders for years. But during the pandemic we took time to watch the birds, and we talked to each other about them. One morning before the osprey had left on their migration journey Dick called me out to the deck to see a large male perched on a dead branch just as it opened its wings and rose to the sky.
While my husband had always encouraged my writing, I rarely shared anything with him. I guess I assumed he was either too busy or not terribly interested. His writing was on political and civic policies and procedures – important stuff. (He serves as a city commissioner and a Democratic Party chair.) I wrote memoir pieces about my aging parents and on my evolution from a shy farm girl to a serious feminist who started playing soccer and running after turning thirty. When I first started writing poetry I remember being irritated when he’d jokingly say “you could write a poem about that.” He said it about anything and everything, as if my writing were not a serious endeavor.
But that first pandemic summer, after he and I had discussed climate change (related to COVID, tropical storms, and wildfires) I brought to the deck a draft of a poem from my eco-poetry class, “I Can’t Mend the Coral Reef,” and read it to him. He listened, then asked me to read it again. It reminded him of our winter in Key West—the rowdy mockingbirds in the frangipani over our porch, the leathery chartreuse iguana that peered from a palm tree into the guest-room window when our daughter was visiting.
In Georgette Unis’ Watercolors in the Desk Drawer, the world is rendered in intricate detail, lush as the pigments on an artist’s palette. Family, nature, politics, and art circumscribe the arc of a life where “time bends / the chronometer” and “leaves do not grow / in the winter soil of philosophies / but rather along the arteries / of unfortunates.” Whether tracking an ancestral immigrant childhood or the results of the most recent election, Unis is attuned to the shifting world, where memories pulled from the desk drawer of recollection reinvent and reinvigorate the landscape.
Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, Barnes and Noble, or from your independent bookstore.
Dick posts and texts and reads online news. I love the feel of newsprint in my hands and dog-ear the pages of my “real” books. He’d always read mysteries, biographies, and political history. I preferred novels, poetry, memoirs, and literary journals. But that first pandemic summer we started reading the same books. After he expressed frustration with his men’s book club, I referred him to the website of an organization of which I’d been a member for eight or nine years, the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild, which supports literary arts in Coastal Delaware. He read posted responses to questions about the novel Long Bright River by Liz Moore, then decided to read the book. He anticipated a twist in the plot that had taken me by surprise. And he suspected the guilty guy early on, probably because he’s read so many crime stories. Funny how we always thought our reading tastes were so different.
While in the past we didn’t consider dinner until dinnertime, and then it was often just a question of which restaurant, since COVID Dick asked me every morning what he should take out of the freezer for that night. He’d always grilled, and I’d done the cooking and baking. That changed, too, after a photo of our grandson Harry’s homemade pizza fired him up.
One late summer Sunday morning I sat at the kitchen table with a cup of dark coffee and worked my crossword as Dick stirred, kneaded, and shaped, checking in with Harry several times in the process. When he showed me the blob of dough puffing out of the mixing bowl, it took me back to my mother’s weekly bread-baking day and the aroma emanating from our farm kitchen. I saw the big enamel basin with the white cotton towel draped over it. I could feel the warm dough under my hands as I kneaded, punched, and shaped it into loaves, though I haven’t baked bread in thirty years. While I knew how much Dick loved pizza, I had no idea how much satisfaction he would get from his homemade tomato, basil, and mozzarella masterpiece. Since then he’s baked biscuits, grilled lobster tails, and cooked spicy chicken and vegetables with rice. I found joy in his new skills and even thought that perhaps I should try to bake a loaf of bread or my mother’s perfect pecan rolls.
Many summer afternoons I worked at my writing, cemented to my desk chair for hours. I’d forget clothes in the dryer and when it was time to feed the pets. Sometimes Dick came in, quietly reminded me it was getting dark, and turned on my lamp. I’d look up and realize that this man is the one person in the world I depended on daily. The only person I talked to about the small things—food, cooking, reading, my writing, his writing, what we are afraid of, the birds that rest in our branches, the trees and plants that line the canal, the dog and cat that sleep in our bed: the essential things – every single day.
On an October evening, bundled in sweaters and my orange down vest, I see crimson cardinals on the branches of the bare persimmon tree. Woodbine once camouflaged in the deep green of the cedar now coil up and crown the tree in rich burgundy vines. Dick and I stand suddenly to watch as a great white egret soars low over the water, extends thin black legs, and lands in the giant oak across the canal. We assume it is the same magnificent bird that has come to this same tree at the same time every night for the last six days. After grooming its feathers with its long yellow bill it turns its back toward us and settles in. Not to build a nest or fish or catch mollusks, just to roost for the night. It has usually stayed until about 7:30 in the morning before raising its grand wings and lifting up into the sky.
As night blackens the water and the air over the canal, I look at my husband of 34 years and muse about how just as grocery clerks, restaurant servers, dog walkers, postal carriers – the everyday people whose services we’d taken for granted — became essential during COVID, so had the small things in our daily lives become essential. Things to which I had never given much thought had taken center stage because we’d been forced to slow down, to stay home. I couldn’t even recall what had been so important before.