Introduction: Where Has All the Kindness Gone?
I have found few, if any, stories like that in press reports of the reactions of ordinary Americans to the coronavirus. Quite the opposite. Television news carries frightening scenes of mobs of gun-toting white men (and a few women) screaming that a mask will forever sully their individualism. These may be the same people caught on thousands of twitter feeds, mask-less, screaming and spreading fetid droplets of spittle on hapless Walmart clerks or Starbucks baristas. TV talking heads who pretend to white-coated medical respectability tell us we should let the elderly and the ill die horrid and lonely deaths on ventilators (provided the hospitals have any ventilators to spare for them) so the young and healthy can attain herd immunity. Politicians refuse financial support to the jobless; instead they insist that businesses re-open, because keeping the economy ticking and employment figures high is more important to them than protecting citizens.
It is possible that 1940s Londoners were kinder, more generous, more prone to think first about the other guy than are 2020s Americans. Also more courageous, with more fortitude; more willing to suffer a little in the hopes that their sacrifices would lead to a common good. In a word: pluckier. And that is why newspaper stories of World War II Londoners are so much more positive than the media reports of Americans facing (or not facing) the corona pandemic.
I prefer, however, to ascribe the difference to the press rather than to the people. I prefer to think that, during that frightening time when no one was safe from bombs falling randomly from the sky, people just preferred to read about the good in one another. And that, for some reason, today, with illness visiting itself in ways that seem equally random, the press has decided that it is far more interesting to catalogue the petty calumnies of cowards and bullies than to focus on somebody who does a generous or heroic act, someone who acts selflessly.
Oh, there were reports, at the start, of doctors and nurses pushed to and over the brink, working round the clock, night after night, without enough masks and gowns and gloves. But once those stories disappeared, nothing positive came to take their place.
I was sure, however, that, during the long months of this pandemic, many good and brave and generous deeds have been done – and are still being done – by ordinary people. And that our readers have witnessed them. We need to share those stories. We need to celebrate those people. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as a ratty bunch of selfish losers, because, unless we can get a better opinion of ourselves, we may gain back our health but we’ll never regain our self-respect. We need to see ourselves again as a nation made up mostly of people who are plucky in the face of adversity.
We at Persimmon Tree hoped that this issue’s Short Takes would help to set us on that course. We looked forward to an outpouring of essays and poetry about the manifold good works we and our neighbors have done and witnessed during these locked down months. That did not turn out to be the case. Most of the submissions were about the good Samaritan who stops to change a stranger’s tire on a lonely stretch of highway – definitely an act of kindness, but entirely unrelated to the coronavirus. Very few were about the pandemic. On the basis of this evidence, anecdotal though it is, I would say you can confidently expect help if your car breaks down, but don’t be so sure you’ll get it when the virus means you need your prescription picked up, your lawn mowed, or even just a friendly cup of coffee. And definitely don’t expect to see a lot of people honoring the workers who risk their lives during lockdown to repair our buildings or collect our garbage. Oh, but wait a minute. Those are exactly the topics of the few (but quite wonderful) essays and poems about Covid, and people’s responses to it, that we did receive. So, maybe all is not as dark as it seems.
The only person I know personally who has died of COVID-19 is my friend Dinah’s husband, William. And by personally I mean I met him exactly once, at a reading where Dinah and I were both participating. He had come to cheer her on and the sweetness between them was palpable. She called him Bunky. They had met as co-workers years ago and were just now contemplating retirement in far-away Belize, where they had been visiting right before they both got sick. Dinah recovered, but William did not, having underlying and complicating conditions such as heart disease and being African American.
Dinah is a member of my beloved Ladies of the Long Table, self-dubbed before I ever joined. A group of female writers I am deeply honored to sit with (currently remotely) nearly every Wednesday at lunch time and whose honest and heartbreakingly beautiful words worm into my soul over and over again and change me in ways I’m only starting to understand. Dinah has been AWOL for about a year, busy with other pursuits (like moving to Belize) and not in the head space needed for writing. We all knew/hoped she would eventually return, but now she is grieving and not quite yet ready to be among us.
But I missed her and worried about her and I am a hanger-on-er of the first order. I don’t like that many people over the age of three, so if you happen to make the cut, it is a life sentence.
I was driving right by Dinah’s house (sort of) on my way up north last Monday so I asked if I could bring coffee and muffins and have a chat in the yard, 6 feet apart. She responded sweetly but noncommittally and I took it she wasn’t quite ready for company. But I felt compelled to do something, she being on my very short People I Care About list. So I cut a bunch of daisies from my overflowing garden and two slabs of the very delicious almond apricot cake with rosemary I had just made (hey-it’s not my recipe so I can brag on it all day long – this stuff is KILLER!) and headed for her place to make a stealth drop on her porch.
I think I had a couple fillings fall out on her unpaved washboard street (I use that term loosely). Geesh! How do people live out in the sticks like that in bad weather? It was tough enough making the drive on a gorgeous summer day! But anyway, I got there, parked on the street, slipped up the driveway on quiet feet to not disturb Dinah or her dogs, made my drop and headed back to my car. And that’s when I saw it. The note.
It was trash day in Oxford and Dinah had put out her two barrels for pick up. Carefully taped to each one was a handwritten note that said:
“In the words of Thomas Edison:
‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.’ Please don’t give up! Thank you for coming to work today. You are deeply appreciated.”
- I have never thought for a moment of leaving the trash collectors an encouraging note. Not now, not earlier, NE-VER.
- This woman just lost her beloved husband and her dream for a blissful retirement together. Is she sitting around feeling sorry for herself? Maybe, but if so she is simultaneously reaching out to uplift others and a category of others universally ignored and taken for granted.
- I lost my own husband 5 years ago and am still mad as hell about it. After unfriending God on Facebook I have now decided he can come to Thanksgiving dinner but can’t be seated near me. In other words, I am stuck in a way my friend seems not to be, despite a hurt that is so very much fresher. As so often happens with these lady writers I love, there is a lesson to be learned here and behavioral changes to consider.
I guess I’ll start with meeting the grocery clerks’ eyes and acting like they are actual humans instead of robots with leprosy. Next, I’m going to write some notes to 2020 graduates I know who got robbed of so many things due to Covid. And since the pen will already be in my hand, maybe I could scrawl a little Thank You to the trash guys. Couldn’t hurt and in some way maybe it would honor William and the huge-hearted widow he left behind.
the form-filler who keeps us on the straight and narrow
the plumber who unblocks our hope
the tired mother doing time in the rainy playground
the Avon lady who delivers magic oils to the lonely
Yusif who saves the woodlice in the playground
Lily who asks me if I’m going to die soon and gives me her crisps
the driver who waves out cars waiting in side roads
the limping woman who shepherds a stray dog to safety
the postman who sprints singing up the steps
Dawn who saves the ducklings hatched on the high street
Rob who won’t fell the tree till the robins have fledged
Adam who hands me a rose for no particular reason
the careworker who strokes my sister’s hair
the shrugging teenager who counts out my change
the computer expert who will explain slowly
whoever mops up sick
leaves us windfall apples
finds our car keys
finds our dog
Praise to all kind people who don’t expect to be thanked
She was seated a few feet from me; her ankles crossed, her hands folded neatly in her lap on top of her handbag, her hair an astonishing silver glow, her head lowered. She appeared to be dozing.
They were standing at the pharmacy consulting window having a lengthy discussion with a pharmacist … two twenty-somethings … apparently brother and sister. It was hard not to hear the conversation.
As the siblings became more agitated, the older woman got up and approached the three who were so engrossed in their conversation they didn’t even notice her.
“What seems to be the problem?” she asked. They looked at her, startled by the intrusion. The brother and sister looked at each other quizzically.
The sister spoke. “The doctor has ordered these prescriptions for our mother, but we can’t afford all of them. We asked the pharmacist to help us decide which would be the least harmful for Mom not to take.”
“I tried to explain to them I am not a doctor and can’t make that judgment,” the pharmacist explained to the woman.
“I see.” she said. “How much do the drugs cost?”
At that point the brother spoke up. “We only have $50.”
The silver-haired woman reached into her handbag, pulled out her wallet and handed the pharmacist three twenty-dollar bills and a five. “Give these kids the prescriptions for their mother.”
The young man tried to give the $50 to the woman as he said “Thank you.”
“Save your money for something else your mother may need.”
“But we don’t know you. How can we repay you?” the sister objected.
“Someday you will see someone in trouble. Help them out. That will repay me.” the woman responded as she turned, went back to her seat and resumed waiting for her name to be called so she could get her prescription.
I watched as the young couple left the pharmacy smiling and shaking their heads in wonder and delight. I saw the silver-haired woman sitting with the slightest smile on her face. I looked at the pharmacist who was still standing at the consulting window grinning.
This is a day to remember I thought to myself. At least five people have had their spirits lifted and their faith in humanity restored.
It was a mitzvah.
End of Mars Retrograde in Aries
sees my confused mother and walks
her to the right door. Kathleen pulls over
in traffic to carry the dog’s body we found
in the street, to the roadside, bowing
her head as she brushes fur from its eyes
and lays him on the grass. My own
dog sits up to watch after I answer
a phone call, then storms to the couch
to lean against my trembling ribs. Paula
asks if there is anything she can do,
while the others only want to know
who tested positive. Every other week
Danica bakes a cherry pie for a caregiver.
Mimi secretly pays the rent for a friend
in recovery. My sponsor in Al-Anon asks
the silence, each morning, how she can
be of service. Mike, not knowing me,
Just that I had nowhere to live, offers his
empty apartment with its leather couch.
My sons deliver Christmas presents
to families who live in the dry riverbed.
And the nurse, unaware I’m watching, tucks
the blanket carefully around my mother.
Singing Acts of Kindness
Without a Word
I’m high risk, say the epidemiologists. Because I’m over 60. So I food-shop at dawn now, when only we high-riskers are allowed in the stores. We all wear masks. I have a lot of faith in masks. And staying home. And FaceTime.
So I was sure that, not only would I never succumb to COVID-19, I’d never even need to get tested.
Then suddenly, on the news: “If you shopped at (a certain local health food store) between July 1st and July 5th, go get tested immediately!” One of their employees had tested positive.
And wouldn’t you know? I’d shopped there on the 3rd. Two lousy probiotics. In and out, six minutes tops. That’s how I shop – ninja-fast. The only person I saw was the cashier. And she was barricaded behind Plexiglas walls.
But there’s no reasoning with a pandemic. I got tested at my doctor’s office. Now I had to isolate and wait for the results. I felt like a grounded teenager, stuck in my room. And I knew the test would come back negative.
What worried me much more was that I was down to my last two migraine pills. Okay, it’s not life or death, but when you’re a migraineur, yes, it is life or death. Ever have a migraine? Sixteen hours of kill me now. These pills really work for me. I carry them with me, even when I just go to check the mailbox.
So why had I left the prescription at my old pharmacy when I moved? I liked the drive out there. Friendly staff. Very knowledgeable and helpful. I called them immediately and credit-carded a refill. But I was no longer in their delivery zone.
Why didn’t I refill it sooner? I thought I had all the time in the world.
Meanwhile, word got out about where I’d shopped on that fateful day. My friends called to sympathize, and we laughed at the irony of possibly getting the plague at a health food store.
But no migraine pills? Not funny. They’re my Dumbo’s feathers. If I ran out before I got the test results, before I could go pick up my refill, my fear alone could trigger a cascade.
Two days later, there was a package at my front door. It was from the pharmacy, and attached to it was a note from one of my friends. I must have babbled my terror of being without pills to her when we’d FaceTimed. She had driven forty minutes to my pharmacy, and explained the situation to them. And they, in turn, had entrusted her with my prescription. Then she’d driven an additional twenty-five minutes to bring it to me. It would take her another hour to get home.
I sat on my doorstep, hugging the bag, overcome with relief and gratitude.
The test came back negative.
Before the V Day
to a dark coconut husk shape;
your teeth look tainted and broad
you do not have the energy to walk
you lie all day and I feed you with semi-solids
your face slumps after every feed
you say you are frightened
of me because I ask you to eat
it takes ten minutes for me
to put you into a wheelchair
you are on a milk and protein diet, so
I stop giving you your insulin shots
I know your sugar level will spiral up
and your temperature will rise
septicemia will set in slowly.
I will give you three tablespoons of milk
and when the third spoonful does not go in
I will give you up, release you from the bonds of love
and set you free, soon before the V day arrives.
Our Morning Ritual
The men outside my window are replacing cracked bricks in the building I live in. It is the pandemic, so we are sentenced to stay home all day, even while they are doing this. I watch them drill the bricks, the noise so loud I have to keep my Bose headphones on. A couple of days ago three men scaled up three floors, and onto my terrace. I asked if they’d like coffee or tea, but they shook their heads, surprised.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
Their eyes lit up. Two asked for coffee, one for tea.
“Milk and sugar? Yes?”
They nodded, smiles stretched ear to ear.
When I came out to the patio with my large ceramic mugs, their smiles vanished and they shook their heads.
The man with an orange helmet said, “Paper cup, no?”
I shook my head. “Why paper cup? Don’t worry if it breaks, it’s okay. They’re old.”
Their smiles of gratitude reminded me of my mother who was an octopus. Compassionate as she was, she used her six children’s limbs as if they were hers. She’d ask my brother to take Aunty Alice to the bus stop; she’d make tea and ask me to serve biscuits on a pretty blue plate to the gardener, or to the dhobi who picks up the laundry. If I grumbled or rolled my eyes, she’d say, “Lalita what is wrong with you? You can’t stop to serve Aunty Mary?” Or Aunty so-and-so. The word wrong sounded like a gong. I brought that blue plate with me to America.
As I serve these men every morning – on the patio, out of doors, socially distanced – I see my mother peeping through the clouds and smiling down at us on my terrace. I stop and watch the leaves turn orange, yellow, green – a promise of better times to come in this sad world of ours.
iridescent feathers, long thin beaks plunge into feeder holes,
reminiscent of the fake birds placed on water glass rims,
dipping up and down, thirst-crazed creatures, never sated.
There was harmony among the birds, until Alpha bird appeared
clacking his beak, clik-a, clik-a, clik-a,
wings whirring wildly, in attack mode
driving them all away.
From the other side of the window,
I look at him, furious with his tyranny.
I try to distract him, banging on the window,
blowing a shrill, high-pitched whistle.
I consult a bird specialist. The bird man says
Alpha bird may be a female, injured, unable to feed properly,
who has become ferocious,
and territorial to save herself.
The next day I stare at Alpha bird. She looks back, cocks her head.
Perhaps only one eye can see me. I lean close.
Is one tiny toe missing?
One wing a little bent?
I fill the humming bird feeder to capacity.
She flits back and forth, red neck feathers flashing
I smile at her.
I spin my prayer wheel. I offer a benediction.
And an apology,
to a bird of courage,
one that I now admire.
The New Normal
We open our motel at the beginning of June. It is three weeks later than our usual opening time, which is usually just after the frost is gone and before the official Memorial Day start of the season.
When we drive into the parking lot loaded with our stuff, I am taken aback by the height of the grass growing on the front lawn. Never in the fourteen years we operated the motel has it been left to grow wild like that. I reflect on an image that amuses me from time to time, of the forest crawling from the back, trying to take over the land that over sixty years ago was cleared for the motel.
We unload everything and open the front door with caution and some apprehension. Every year when we return after the seven months of being away, we encounter unexpected surprises. Usually, we find water leaks and busted pipes, and on occasion wild animals who decided to become guests for the winter. Like the family of raccoons, a mom and six babies, who moved into the ceiling of our bedroom one winter.
Once we assess the damages in our residence, open the windows, and take the tarps off beds and furniture, the sense of being back home is somewhat established. We can start with the tedious task of opening the guest rooms and getting them cleaned and ready.
But this year, we have four acres of overgrown grass almost up to my knees, already wearing a crown of seed heads. There’s no one in town – we are situated on the main road – who did not witness this stage of neglect. Everywhere we go people nod their heads in disapproval. “We thought you left never to come back,” is their unspoken message.
My job is to mow the lawn, so before doing anything, I fire up the mower and go to work. For hours I go back and forth on the overgrown grass. The first cut has to be high so as not to choke the machine. Then a second cut, somewhat deeper, and still when I inspect the results at the end of the day, I am amazed at how little progress I made.
The next morning, I wake to the noise of people talking and the unmistakable zoom of weed whackers. I look outside and see three men working on our lawn. Quickly I dress and go outside to discover Adam, our part-time housekeeper’s husband, and two of his buddies. The three of them are working on the lawn. Before noon everything is done.
The new normal, or perhaps just neighbors helping neighbors who go through tough times created by circumstances out of their control. The way it always was and the way it should be.