By Teddy Robertson
We were all so new at balancing mortal threat and daily life. Inept, but resourceful.
That’s how it felt a year ago this May when East Village Magazine staff shared their first experiences of the COVID pandemic. That’s odder than you might think—reporters usually don’t want to be part of a story.
I can hardly recall the details of Spring 2020 now; I had to look them up. Each new order blotted out memory of the previous one. We rocketed through the month of March. Just look at this list for a shocking reminder:
- March 10—two COVID cases in Detroit revealed and a state of emergency declared
- March 11—state colleges move online
- March 13—K-12 schools close
- March 16—bars and restaurants shuttered
- March 17—the first COVID-related death confirmed
- March 21—Detroit automakers shut down and the US-Canada border closed
- March 23—non-essential workers were directed to stay at home
- March 28—Michigan COVID cases total 4650
- March 30—the rest of the school year in classrooms canceled.[ClickOnDetroit]
By April 8, Michigan COVID cases numbered over 20,000, with 959 deaths. Fury at the governor’s April 9 executive shut down order (“Stay Home, Stay Safe”) triggered a protest called “Operation Gridlock” at the state capitol (April 15). Restrictions on businesses eased, but the stay-at-home order was extended to May 15 (April 24). Vital Records listed the state death toll at 3,448.[ClickOnDetroit] You can look up the rest.
Personal panic rises up on a flight from LA
And each of us had our individual reactions. What I remember is my personal panic. The feeling began as vague unease during my flight home to Flint from LA. I’d been in Southern California with Dennis, my partner, over the winter. Angelenos were already using the elbow bump; things seemed cool. When I boarded the last leg of my trip in Chicago, I watched a woman about my age fussily wipe down her own seat area. She shifted systematically to the top and back of the seat in front of her. “Should I be doing this?” I wondered.
That question morphed with each day’s new statewide executive order, orders then strangled midafternoon by presidential press conferences. What should I be doing now? Find masks with filters (and not try to make my own)? Wear gloves to wipe down surfaces and store groceries in the garage for three days? A contractor friend dropped off disposables to fit my small hands, but I soon abandoned the wiping and waiting.
Words and phrases took on new meaning: social distancing, mitigation, essential workers, a “pause.” Safety measures were now protocols. Using media lingo made me feel as if I’d joined a bunch of grown-ups playing “doctor” or “scientist.”
I experimented with Instacart and ordered groceries online, not much stuff for a person alone. No point in grocery “Senior hours” for me. Suddenly calls on my cell phone came from Georgia: would I take X instead of Y? I discovered a new laundry detergent thanks to a kid who suggested a substitution—his mom’s favorite version of Tide.
“I’ll just drink them one at a time”
A harried Meijer employee told me on the phone that Shipt could deliver wine. From screens of Meijer’s wine choices, I patched together a case of sauvignon blanc. The Shipt team in black company tee shirts (a young couple on their way home to Mt. Morris) delivered my order in early evening. They apologized for bringing the bottles in bags; all the case boxes had been used up.
Storing the bottles in the garage for the three suggested days, the woman asked if I were having a party.
“No,” I replied, “I’ll just drink them one at a time.”
The garage in Michigan spring kept the bottles chilled. I found out I preferred New Zealand whites to California ones. I bought a one-year membership with Shipt. I perfected a kale, tomato and bean soup made in batches. It went well with the dry white wine.
I had my standards: I never took the wine to bed.
Sore hip bones, old photos, my mother’s furs
Between multiple daily phone calls from Dennis and friends, my private sea of uncertainty churned. One particular admonition drilled into me as a school kid bubbled up: “Don’t waste this time!”
I sorted boxes of photos and old letters. When my hip bones rebelled with weeks of sitting, I worked standing. I switched tasks and cleared out closets. I even photographed my mom’s 1950s coats and furs. I emailed the pictures to the Theatre costume shop at UM-Flint: could they use a leopard-trimmed opera coat?
Chores tamped down the panic.
The past drew close in the witching hours
I read until 1 or 2 a.m., adrenalin-pumped from daytime tasks. No surprise, really, that friends from past decades began to visit me in the “witching hours” of those nights. I realized how close to me was my past, especially friends of childhood and adolescence. If they were still living, we were suddenly joined up in the same reality. But, as I described in another EVM column, in the “witching hours” the dead also wander, return young and alive to console and laugh at our earthly predicament.]
Friends from the witching hours of last spring, very much alive, are still with me a year later. Four of us from high school, now in our 75th year, began to email regularly. And the dead? They sometimes turn up at their designated hours; they seem relieved.
The chores that mustered my energy for three months—I feel good about them. The old photos and letters got reduced from six boxes to three. They fit on a shelf where I can see them and no longer lurk under the bed. When my mother’s coats and furs were picked up later, in August, I reached a milestone not just in months of pandemic survival, but in my emotions over the decade since her death.
And so we plant again
My 2020 refrigerator calendar tells me that the last frost date was forecast for April 23 and that I was planting cherry tomatoes on May 5. On May 28, my partner Dennis left LA and drove to Flint in two days, sleeping in the car near Sterling, Colorado, somewhere east of Denver. He pulled in around midnight on May 29 and we’ve spent the winter here.
I didn’t waste the strange, unforeseen time of spring 2020. We had a bumper crop of Sweet 100s tomatoes that summer and, somewhat later in this frost-edged May of 2021, we have planted again.
EVM occasional columnist Teddy Robertson, professor emerita in history at UM – Flint, can be reached at email@example.com.