The rumble of a helicopter breaks the winter silence. In the spring we’d look up, curious, fearful, as yet another Ornge air ambulance ferried another sick patient to hospital. Now we hardly notice them, though we still send a silent plea skyward: Please get well.
One of the saddest sights of early spring was the yellow caution tape draped over playground equipment. Fortunately science prevailed and little kids returned to the swings and slides; their laughter music to our ears. It was even more heart-warming to see them return to school in the fall.
In the park we strolled separately, wary of bylaw officers who might demand proof of residence. The same officers who roused annoyed seniors from park benches with the threat of heavy fines. Though after watching the video of Italian mayors chasing young people in parks and threatening to send police with flame throwers to break up graduation parties, perhaps we were lucky. In Paris and other cities residents couldn’t even leave home without permission. Our streets and parks were suddenly filled with new puppies, which of course need to be walked several times a day.
After two weeks of lockdown we were ready to resume our lives. Then it was, “How will I survive until the end of June?” And here we are at year’s end, old COVID-hands, preparing ourselves emotionally and physically to hang on ’til summer, when we should all be able to breathe easier. In the meantime …
MASK UP: A friend’s mom made me two beautiful cloth masks in March. I tried one on, hoping I’d never have to wear it. Within weeks they were mandatory. Signs went from warm and fuzzy “Let’s all work together!” treatises to a more cryptic “No Mask, No Entry.” Elastic straps now hang from coat pockets, from rear-view mirrors and pile up in a bowl in the front hall. Masks are so ubiquitous, we feel naked without them. A man standing behind my sister in the supermarket suddenly exclaimed loudly and rushed outside. He’d forgotten his mask! I felt the same dread the morning I reached the lobby of my Tehran hotel and realized I’d forgotten my headscarf. I’ve never run back to my room so quickly.
But there is a downside. Between mask-muffled speech and plexiglass, it’s now impossible to hear anybody. I’ve resorted to hand gestures, shrugs and waves to beleaguered clerks. One day in late fall I walked to our main shopping street, the Danforth, and stopped in confusion. Everyone walking by wore a mask; it looked like a scene from a zombie movie. Did I miss the memo? With rules changing daily, you never know. In summer we dutifully donned masks to wander outdoor farmer’s markets. Though it seemed silly, we were so grateful they were allowed to open at all we happily followed the rules.
LOCKDOWN LATTE: Dour public health officials asked if our latte fixation was worth risking death. We replied with our wallets in a desperate attempt to keep our favourite baristas afloat. When indoor dining closed we got creative, sipping espresso on church steps, on park benches (moving the yellow tape aside) or perched on landscaped limestone boulders in parking lots. As the temperature dropped it become a game; how long can you enjoy a latte while sitting at a frozen picnic table? I gave up at 1C, when drinking hot coffee through ice-cold foam wasn’t fun anymore.
WASTE NOT: The waste generated by COVID-19 is staggering. At least the plastic glove phase was brief, though Lysol wipes remain scarce and supermarkets continue spritzing customers’ hands with sanitizer. Disposable blue masks litter the ground. I figure I’ve now thrown away 300 non-recyclable coffee cups, not by choice. I usually request no lid, but on Christmas Day a Starbucks manager announced it was company policy to provide a lid. In mid-summer the same gang were donning plastic gloves to accept cash. Though studies have shown no viral transmission through food and little risk from touching surfaces, retailers report that consumers are demanding more plastic-wrapped food and will happily cart their groceries home in plastic bags rather than bring their own. Some restaurant takeout containers are so sturdy, it seems a crime to discard them. My “green” heart breaks.
HOME WORK: It took me a minute to figure out the meaning of WFH, as in Work From Home, which I’ve been practicing for 24 years. Last month I made a phone appointment with a high-ranking US executive who didn’t pick up at the appointed time. Twenty minutes later he called from home, saying he was helping his Grade 4 son with e-learning and had we set a time? I had to laugh, if he was back in his high-powered Chicago office I’m sure his secretary wouldn’t let him forget an appointment. The long-time commuter says he loves working from home and spending more time with his son, which he didn’t get to do with his older children. I can only imagine the huge change in the relationship between these once-absent fathers and their kids. I hope it’s a positive experience for all.
CAN YOU PIVOT? Desperate small shops and restaurants have tried everything to stay alive, but their protests continue to fall on deaf ears as crowds grow at Costco and Walmart.
CREATIVE COOKERY: With less work coming in and more empty evenings, the urge to cook has been strong. Out came recipes I haven’t cooked in years, and others I’ve always wanted to make. When I asked my chef pal/ bubble bud what dishes he hadn’t made in awhile, the Covid Classic Dinner Series was born. Paella, cassoulet, rabbit, pasta with wild mushrooms, fish en papillote, Greek pastitsio, osso buco, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, linguine alle vongole, even roast turkey, we’ve tried them all, to the delight of a (very) small group of Covid rebels who dare to join us, plus socially-distanced neighbours who appreciate the occasional porch delivery. We’ve also been shucking and slurping more oysters than ever before thanks to the $1 bivalves at Sobey’s, raised in PEI for now-closed Ontario restaurants and bars. My summer garden, meanwhile, yielded its first garlic along with the zucchini, tomatoes, kale, beans and herbs. It was such a success, I’ve planted 20 cloves for next year.
ONCE UPON A: Last year’s wondrous trip to India feels like a dream, fused with fragments from so many other trips Elsewhere. How lucky were we. Though tourism boards around the world stepped up with videos of everything we’re missing, it felt like a tease, a cruel joke. Once new safety measures are in place, future flights may be even less appealing than in Old Time. But I’ve discovered that any travel in our new small world, even to the next city, can be exciting, perhaps because it’s forbidden! A suitcase on the subway elicits stares: Ooh where’s she going? Wandering through a near-empty Union Station feels surreal until you descend to the VIA waiting area to find the rest of the world already waiting in line. With only half the seats sold, we stretched out in window seats like royalty. Alone, masked, silent. Early on, they even brought free hummus and Cadbury bars! Such fun. A few days in Kingston sharing everyday life and laughter with my sister and brother-in-law were incredibly restorative. We walked in the woods and munched pizza while watching old movies. Seeing my brother and youngest sister, kids and dogs was another treat. How grateful we are to have one another.
ONLY THE LONELY: Whoever dreamed up the Stay-At-Home edict was obviously not single. In fact it took months for officials to even acknowledge our existence, as desperate calls to help lines grew and lonely seniors failed. One official even suggested singles “enjoy” Thanksgiving dinner with friends on Zoom. Imagine living alone in a small apartment and feeling like a leper when you step outside as others give you a wide berth. No chit-chat with clerks or fellow subway riders either in this time of plague. There’s a hole in our lives no Zoom call can fill.
FIT BIT: And yet, for all its negatives, the pandemic has brought new ways to work and exercise. I can now roll out of bed at 8:30 and attend a 9:15 Zoom workout in my office with other women from my United Church class, no matter the weather. After 15 years of study, the Danforth got a fabulous bike lane, instantly! And thanks to delivery services making obscene profits I can have anything I desire show up on my front porch, from books, wine and meal kits to fine cheeses and charcuterie, much of it local. Being part of an online seminar or cooking demonstration with people from other countries can be quite thrilling. In this slow-mo world there’s also more time to commune with nature, sort through old photos and scrub long-neglected corners.
IN THE END: At the moment it feels like we’re all living underground with no idea what we’ll find when it’s finally safe to poke our heads into the light. What will survive of our old life? Will our shopping streets be filled with cannabis stores and takout pizza? Will the lineups end? Will the plexiglass come down? Will we ever hug again?
Until then we wait, we learn, we love from afar. And mentally scan our bodies every morning to be sure we’re virus-free.