The Beach…this year

For many of us, the yearly visit to our favorite vacation spot is something we look forward to with anticipation. There is travel which offers an opportunity to explore new surroundings and then there’s travel that provides rest and relaxation and the soothing comfort of knowing exactly what to expect when we arrive at our destination. A friend recently posted that he just had to get away for a few days to breathe in the salt air and savor the crab cakes, Grotto pizza, and Thrasher’s French fries. Yes. Now when we’re enmeshed in the unprecedented horror of a pandemic, made even more terrifying by politicizing the safety of human lives, we need the familiar. We need a touch-point of normalcy– something to hold onto because so much of what we always took for granted has been snatched from our grasp.

But our beloved resorts are different this year, too. The beach is crowded but most people are keeping six feet of space around them, and there’s a breeze and we’re outside, so we should be okay. (Right??) Hotels and restaurants are under-staffed even with reduced patronage because the influx of summer workers from eastern European countries has been halted and many don’t want to do that kind of work, especially now. Tables are set up in parking lots and in one case, under the building on a make-shift layer of sand where the staff scurries up and down a steep flight of outside steps to get to the kitchen. Businesses are thinking creatively and incurring huge expenses so that we can still safely enjoy our annual week at the shore.

And yet, for some, that’s not good enough. I heard a young clerk in a store politely ask a customer to wear a mask only to be greeted with a torrent of vitriolic language. An ice cream stand on the boardwalk closed for a few days because their employees were getting constant abuse from customers. On the website of the community where we own a vacation home, there has been whining about limiting capacity at the swimming pools. Our cleaning service increased prices due to additional disinfecting protocols, and the owner told me he was accused of using the virus to “rip people off.” As I write this, some troll posted on the Facebook page of a well-known restaurant that the restaurant had eight employees who tested positive and who were being forced to continue working, all of which was blatantly untrue. Now, on top of everything else, the restaurant must try and undo the social media damage.

I sat on the beach last week reading Eric Larson’s latest book, The Splendid and the Vile which describes Churchill’s first year as prime minister and the courage and fortitude of the British people as they endured the bombing blitz of London. I couldn’t help but contrast that to what we’re experiencing now in this country. We’re being asked to make minimal sacrifices to sustain our own health as well as that of our fellow human beings. The Brits watched as their homes burned and lives were lost nearly every night for a year and yet they fought the fires and got up and went to work the next day. They did what they needed to do. They were in it, together, for the long haul even when the future looked bleak. I’m not sure that we can say the same as we sip our orange crushes watching the sunset over the bay, yet still feel the need to complain about wearing a mask or having to wait our turn at the swimming pool.

 

 

 

The Absence of There-ness

I started crying when I opened the cereal cupboard this morning. One of the things Vinnie would still eat in his last days was cereal. His favorites were oatmeal, Life (not the Target brand) and Quaker Oat Squares. I don’t think he felt well when he got up and licking the dregs of my cereal bowl and snitching a few crumbs of muffin or toast helped get him started toward eating his own breakfast. On Sunday, when he didn’t finish my oatmeal, I knew we were in trouble.

Unlike cats, dogs are so full of there-ness. Cats slink around, discreetly tending their own business and deigning to interact with humans when it suits them. But dogs are stinky-breathed, crotch-licking, food-stealing creatures of boundless need. You can’t avoid dogs. They are in your face, in your bed and on your favorite chair. They are come-on-get-up-I-have-to-pee-at-1-AM, let’s hunt squirrels and chipmunks,  terrorize the cat, chase the Kong toy, hump the dog bed along with certain guests, secretly crap on the dining room rug, eat unrecognizable things off the pavement and bark maniacally at the doorbell. At least that was Vinnie’s version of there-ness, all of which had begun to fade in recent months.

It is the absence of there-ness that makes loss so hard. Not just the terrible physical loss of the animal, but it’s all their stuff and the routines that become so ingrained in us that when they’re suddenly snatched away, we feel like we’ve been cast into another universe.

Caring for Vinnie was a lifestyle. His chronic liver disease required carefully administered medications along with frequent trips to a specialist vet. Our morning conversation usually consisted of one of us asking the other about what, if anything, Vinnie ate for breakfast and the quality of his poop. The wall calendar is marked with red “P’s” to remind us of the alternating days he got prednisone. We rarely traveled because we needed the pet-sitter at least four times a day.

Now the plastic tub of medications that sat on our kitchen counter for four years is gone. There are no more zip-lock bags of cooked ground beef in the refrigerator. My husband dis-assembled Vinnie’s crate that stood beside our bed since we rescued him in 2013 and took it down to the basement. We kept it covered with towels, like a birdcage, so Vinnie wouldn’t erupt in frantic barking if the cat crept into our room at night. I washed his bowls and put them away in the pantry, perhaps for future use, but relieved of the heartbreak of seeing barely eaten bowls of food sitting up on the counter.

There will be no more computer-generated voicemails from CVS informing us that a prescription for “Vinniedog” is ready for pick-up. I threw away the post-its scribbled with his latest liver enzyme numbers and lab results, along with the bulging file folder containing his medical records. I will no longer feel the polite tap of Vinnie’s paw when I’m eating, reminding me that he would like a sample of whatever is on my plate. His collar rests on my husband’s workbench in the garage because we don’t want our other dog to hear its distinctive jingle and think Vinnie is here somewhere. She’s been bossing him around ever since she arrived as a puppy seven years ago and now looks lost.

Dogs ferret out human love with the same intensity they worry a bone or snuffle down a chipmunk hole. They won’t take no for an answer. They urge us out of our complacency and oh-so-busy lives to feed them and take them outside and clean up their messes. Their need for us is all consuming as is ours for them. And when there are finally no more balls to throw or pills to give, we scramble to create an absence of their there-ness, so we don’t turn into puddles of mush at the sight of a worn and faded collar or half-empty bag of treats. But our dogs have nestled into us just like they have the top of the couch cushions which will never really return to their original shape. Neither will we.

couch cushions

Give It to Marian

Marian was a black woman who “did” for my grandmother. Marian cleaned and ironed and occasionally helped out in the kitchen when my grandmother entertained. A tiny woman, she moved through the house like a wispy shadow, rarely speaking unless she was spoken to first. I was told Marian was one of the few people who could quiet me as a baby. In her later years, a stroke garbled her speech and limited her to doing only the lightest housekeeping chores. But Marian still showed up at the back door twice a week because she was devoted to my grandparents.

My grandmother was a product of her era, a lovely and gracious woman whom I adored. But she was educated in the south a hundred years ago and carried the spores of racial discrimination deep in her soul. Nanan wasn’t a cruel person but viewed colored, as they were called then, as inferior to whites. Looking back, I think it was less of a choice on her part than something she just accepted as fact. It was the norm. If there was food about to spoil in the refrigerator or clothing that was no longer wearable, my grandmother’s standard response was “give it to Marian.” When one of my “colored” classmates sat at her dining room table for my twelfth birthday party, it was the first time a black person ate there instead of serving the food.

I grew up in a blue-collar small town. Families of color tended to live in two separate neighborhoods, but we all went to the same schools, played on the same sports teams and for the most part, got along. The town tended to be very insular, more resentful of outsiders than of those who were not white. But it’s probably also true that everyone got along because the black families played by the white rules of the time.

The N-word was never spoken in our home, but there was still an underlying “us and them” mentality. My dad sold insurance to many of the local black families and would remark that their houses were so clean you could eat off the floor. As if that were a surprise. I will never forget the day he and I were looking at a Norfolk Southern timetable from the 1930’s he had just added to his railroad collection. On the back there was a picture of an alligator swallowing a cartoon black man with the caption “Gone ‘coon.” I didn’t understand it until my father reluctantly explained that in the south, blacks were sometimes referred to as “coons,” and at the time, this was not only considered acceptable but humorous. I was horrified.

I have always thought of myself as very open-minded but am well aware that shedding prejudicial values is a constantly evolving process. Prejudice is an insidious bastard and can worm its way into the fabric of the best intentions. There are people, not all of them grown-ups, who have helped me by telling their stories and by being wonderful human beings I’ve come to love and respect. But living in my privileged white bubble, I cannot begin to comprehend what it’s like to see someone who looks like me in that alligator’s mouth. Or to be a highly educated African American man who is still viewed with suspicion when he walks down the street. Or to have to say thank you when I’m handed a white family’s moldy bread and torn clothing.

 

 

Should Have Been

My husband and I should have been singing our spring choral concerts this weekend. Should have been describes all of our lives right now. Should have been getting married, running a business, taking the trip, going to the gym. Should have been visiting family, watching a ball game, graduating from high school, dining in a favorite restaurant. The list, like this quarantine time, is endless.

Our calendars are virtually empty except for the harsh lines crossing out the rehearsals, meetings and  appointments that comprise our retirement life. As a Type A person who constantly looks ahead to the next thing, seeing that blank page on the calendar is disconcerting. I feel cast adrift without the anchor of having to be somewhere. I’m grateful to not be one of those who must provide care or food or community safety, on whom our survival depends. I realize it’s a privilege to sit in my nice suburban home and navel-gaze about not having enough to do, but it’s an odd feeling for someone who thrives on showing up and fulfilling obligations.

So as my world shrinks, I try to adjust my vision. Those who know me know I am not one for waxing poetic about spiritual practices. I have a low tolerance for the word “mindful” and don’t even get me started on  “intentional.” But I will admit to having developed a deeper appreciation for that which is right in front of me, that would have just whizzed by the window in my frantic rush to be somewhere I should have been.

The hummingbirds who graciously showed up the day after I hung the feeders. The long-simmering essay I finally submitted to a publication where it will probably be rejected, but I know it’s some of my best work and will eventually find a home. My almost child-like delight in walking into the dining room to see how my vegetable seedlings are doing. The elderly and chronically ill dog we keep alive with expensive drugs and gourmet meals who rewards us by toddling out of his crate every morning, waiting to be lifted into our bed for a snuggle. A good read on the porch in the afternoon and Netflix at night without guilt. An out of town shopping trip to a favorite grocery store, a walk in the local park, a deliciously gossipy two-hour phone call with a church friend.

These small things are life rafts keeping me afloat in the unrelenting tidal wave of the pandemic. I find myself grabbing the phone every time I hear a push alert from the local TV station, thinking, “My God, what now?” The constant bombardment of grim statistics followed by everyone shouting at each other on social media keeps me in a roiling sea of fear and anxiety and yet it’s like an addiction. I crave the fix of the latest news.

Tonight my husband and I will order take-out meals from a local restaurant and settle into our TV chairs. We may stream The King and I from Lincoln Center or watch another episode of The Wire. It’s a far cry from stepping into formal concert clothes and singing exquisite music we worked months to prepare and that makes me sad. I miss all the should-have-beens, but they will come back. In the meantime, appreciation for what we do have, for what makes our lives richer and better right now, is enough.