What will we remember?

Some of our grands are so young they will not remember this time of social distancing and isolation amid a global pandemic. Others are old enough that they will remember schools closing, playgrounds off limits, no visits with their friends, cousins or grandparents.

My father-in-law, Hub, had a phenomenal memory. He often told of the time his family home was quarantined. What struck me every time he told the story was the detail about the teddy bear and how that was permanently seared into his memory.

May 1918: Hub, Mabel and Alice

He was 5 at the time. His older sister, Alice, was 8 and his oldest sister, Mabel, was 12. Alice got sick and the doctor diagnosed it as scarlet fever. Outbreaks of scarlet fever in the early 1900s were often deadly or left children with lifelong disabilities. It was also highly contagious.

The doctor said Hub and Mabel had to stay away until Alice got better and the house had been fumigated.

Later in life, Hub put his memories to paper filling one yellow legal pad after another. He wrote, “There was no place to go except to Grandpa and Grandma’s, just down the road. We were packed up and sent off to their house. I had a little coaster wagon that we put our clothes in, and a few of my toys, and we walked down the road.

“On the way, my little teddy bear fell off, and when we discovered the loss, we went back to look for it. A man who was working with a crew paving the road found it and gave it back to me.”

He recalled days spent waiting out in the front yard, watching the men work on the highway and waiting for his sister Mabel to return from school.

His dad often brought them food, cereal, fruit and milk for the grandparents to feed them.

“My grandparents were old and poor and didn’t have very many pieces of good furniture. The mattresses were muslin bags filled with corn shucks. They weren’t too happy about having us there. They talked in German between themselves, most of the time, and we surmised they were conversing about us. Whether this actually happened or not, we do not know for sure, but we thought so.”

They stayed with their grandparents three or four weeks. “It was a happy day when Dad came down and told us we could go home.”

What will be our memories of this time in history?

I hope we remember family, friends and neighbors checking on one another, caring for one another. I hope we remember the exhausted medical personnel and first responders risking their own health, the truck drivers, food service workers, and all the clerks and cashiers who kept grocery stores open. Never forget the garbage collectors—and that the mail kept coming.

I hope we remember private industry retrofitting plants for the manufacture of facemasks and ventilators, scientists, researchers and pharmaceuticals racing to find therapeutic treatments and a vaccine.

I hope we remember how fear cast a long shadow. May we also remember renewed soul searching, fervent prayers and leaning hard on God.

We are writing history. May we write it well.

Close together and far apart

The hardest part of social distancing during a pandemic has been ignoring the little table and chairs in the living room that periodically heave deep sighs of loneliness.

Then there is the basket of children’s books I step over each morning when I raise the shades. They’ve grown surly. Some days “The Hungry Caterpillar” nips at my legs.

On Sunday, I texted a list of my accomplishments to the daughters, just to let them know things are happening at a breakneck pace here, despite the isolation:

Got up early

Answered emails

Hyperventilated while reading headlines

Did workout on YouTube while casting Ina Garten on Food Network to TV

Went to church online

Filled old nail holes in family room with Dap

How about you?

The first and only answer I received in response:

Slept in

Ate breakfast

Showered

Broke up fighting

Threatened kids

Separated kids

Started laundry

Made kids read in separate rooms

Church

Heating up lunch

Many of the grands have been doing a great deal of travel despite staying at home and attempting to drive their parents batty. Last week all 11 of them had ballet lessons with the Cleveland Ballet from 2 to 3 in the afternoon, followed by a tour of the Cincinnati Zoo at 4. Normally you couldn’t make it from Cleveland to Cincy that fast, but Facebook works wonders.

Some popped in at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota for an update on bald eagles that follow the Mississippi River.

After that they dropped in for a tour of impressionism paintings at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

There have been music lessons with Zoom and even a jam session for strings.

We shrank the distance between us and the Chicago brood with FaceTime the other night. It was good to see them—up their nostrils, into their eyeballs, close-ups of their tonsils, the ceiling fan, the floor, the ceiling fan, the side of someone’s face smashed against the phone and back to the ceiling fan and overhead lights. It wasn’t the first time a virtual visit caused motion sickness.

The occasional shared video, having some cyberspace family time and “coffee with friends” via cellphone all help to fill the void.

For now, the best way to love one another is to stay away from one another. It is a small thing to do if it helps break the chain of transmission and lessens the suffering and death.

The little table and chairs are sighing again.

“Hang in there,” I whisper to them. “One day, one day soon.”

To Do or To Be, that is the question

I recently read “Things Successful People Do Before 8 a.m.” It was 9:30 a.m. at the time. Successful people were already ahead of me by an hour and a half.

Successful people get up early, work out, eat a healthy breakfast, survey the morning headlines, overview what needs to be done for the day and make To Do lists.

If success were measured by To Do lists, I’d be at the top of the mountain. My life is a never-ending trail of sticky notes. A million things to do scribbled on little pink and yellow squares: project deadlines, appointments to keep, calls to return, errands to run, meals to plan, people to see, things to fix.

So many things to do, so little time in which to do them.

I so relish crossing things off a To Do list that I sometimes add things I’ve already done to a list just for the joy of crossing them off. It creates the illusion of productivity.

See there—a big black line through “Fill the bird feeders.”

A friend floated the idea of keeping To Be lists instead of To Do lists. Scratching through those would not be an exercise in speed.

At the top of my To Be? A better listener, a person who doesn’t just hear, and is quick with solutions, but one who truly listens with understanding.

Recently, I was digging through my purse for a pen when a woman stopped me to say something very kind. I made eye contact, but it wasn’t until she finished that I realized I kept digging for a pen the entire time she spoke. What’s the matter with me? Please don’t answer and, if you do, hold it to 10,000 words or less.

To Be? A person who knows that time is not a commodity, but a gift—a gift given to us and a gift we give others.

To Be? Generous. To freely share all that I have. No strings attached, no thank you expected, simply to give because giving is good.

To Be? Attentive. I know the clerks and cashiers and the produce people at the grocery where I shop by their faces, smiles and voices, but not their names. I see many of them weekly. Common courtesy says I ought to pay attention to their names.

At the end of the day, I nearly always wish I had been more in the moment.

Things on a To Be list won’t be checked off as quickly as those on a To Do list. By the time I get through some of those To Be items, the glue on the back of the sticky notes will be dried and worthless. But slow progress is better than none.

By the way, John is the name of the man who stocks produce in the early mornings.

One To Be down and a thousand more to go.

We’ve got your number

We have a number of number people in our family. Sadly, I can’t tell you exactly how many because I’m not one of them. As non-number people are prone to do, let’s just round up and say it is a lot.

Number people often obsess with remembering historic dates, record-breaking high and low temperatures, anniversary dates, what the water bill was this month compared to the same month last year and what a haircut cost in 1994. For a number person, a really good time is approximating how many shingles are on the roof.

My father-in-law was a number guy. He worked as an estimator for General Motors, estimating the time various stages of manufacturing would take to complete. He often did computations in his head and was wary of people who used calculators for simple things like figuring compound interest to the fourth decimal point.

He was also vocal about his frustration with younger co-workers who didn’t know what pi was. Hint: It’s not apple, cherry or blueberry.

Sometimes, just for fun, the kids would throw out math problems for him to solve. Occasionally, he picked up a pencil and did a little scratching on the edge of the newspaper. Others thought he was doing the computation, but I’m certain he was writing down names of those who couldn’t keep up with him.

The husband shares a common denominator with his father in that he, also, has excellent recall for numbers. It’s a convenient trait for a spouse to have, although at times it is like being married to an almanac. He can (and will) tell you the anniversary dates of major historical events, birthday anniversaries in the family (both living and deceased), the last time we both went to the dentist and how many days we have been without rain.

We recently discovered the number gene growing exponentially in one of the grands who is 9. She fastidiously tracks the birthdays of all 10 of her cousins, paying keen attention to the youngest in the brood who is 20 months old. She fixates on the youngest because she suspects this tot will be the last addition to the extended family.

So, she marks the date of the month that little one was born on each page of a monthly calendar. When the date arrives, she takes a few moments to lament that the family is one month closer to being completely out of babies. The rest of us lament that the babies in the family are getting older too, but not with such precision or flair for drama.

I only hope that my birthday isn’t on the radar of our number-loving grandchild. I don’t need anyone tracking my age, as though counting down days to the apocalypse. More importantly, if there’s any crying to be done, I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself.

Junk drawers charging into the future

Competition for space in kitchen drawers is fierce these days. That beloved staple, the junk drawer, may soon be crowded out by something called a charging drawer, an empty drawer wired with ports at the back to charge cell phones, iPads, ear buds and assorted electronics.

You can charge a phone in any room in the house, but the only place you can find a 6-year-old lemon-flavored throat lozenge so old it is stuck to the wrapper is in the catchall drawer.

Ditto for hair ties. Sure, you might find some in a bathroom drawer, but the ones with hair still knotted in them will be in the junk drawer. That’s also where you’ll find felt tip markers without lids, ballpoint pens out of ink, dull scissors and pencils with broken leads.

Junk drawers are not just depositories for random things you throw in on the fly, they are family history. Journalists without scruples have sometimes rifled through trash to find out details about people. If you really want to know someone, go through their junk drawer.

The first thing you notice in our drawer is birthday candles. Some are still in the box, others are mixed with pens and paper clips. There are all colors and sizes, in all stages of deterioration. Some are melted to nubs because they’ve been used before. Now you know—we like to party and are so cheap we recycle birthday candles.

We also like to eat, which is why you’ll find chopsticks, a fossilized fortune cookie, dinner mints from restaurants and a takeout menu stuck to the bottom of the drawer.

You’ll also find plastic drinking straws. We’re hanging on to a few before they become obsolete. The two decrepit steak knives with plastic handles aren’t for eating, but for ripping open delivery boxes.

A good junk drawer takes years to build. Amazon does not sell a plastic ruler with pictures of past presidents on it that is cracked in two places. A ruler like that takes years of getting snagged in the back of the drawer. It’s not that useful for drawing a straight line any longer, but it’s been around so long it’s like family. You don’t dump family.

Need felt pad tips for chair legs, so they don’t scratch your hardwoods? An emery board for filing your nails? A neon green miniature flashlight, book matches, AAA batteries? A gauge to check air pressure in your tires? We’ve got it all in the junk drawer. Somewhere. Dig deeper.

Consider this—charging your phone at various outlets around the house, especially ones near the floor, is good for your knees. Those deep bends may be all that’s keeping you flexible.

Go ahead, empty your junk drawer and turn it into a neat and clean, streamlined charger drawer. But remember this — Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was a good junk drawer.