Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Pandemic shrouds family’s loss

Six years ago, at 5 o’clock in the morning on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my dad died.
He was in his bed at home at the edge of the woods, five miles outside a northern Connecticut town. Outside: five inches of fluffy snow. A muffled world: with no breeze, each twig, every branch, was coated with white cotton. Only tiny birds came to the windows and danced on the lawn outside the dining room. Five wild turkeys slowly circled the house. They had been circling for days, as if weaving us into the warmth and quiet inside the house. At night, they flew up into the boughs hanging over the house to roost.
We were lucky. As the family gathered from far and near to create Thanksgiving family time, we were able to care for my father at the center: to hold his dry hand, rest a cheek on his forehead, talk to him, kiss him good bye. Time stood still — giving us a space in which to accompany him to the gate.
The night before, we stood out in cold air bumping shoulders with cousins around a bonfire. A friend had given us the dried husks of several ancient, rotted wooden canoes. We built a pyramid in the snow, and set it ablaze. Orange flames and yellow sparks swirled up into the starry black void above and it felt as if we might be lighting the way for my father’s spirit to follow. And indeed, shortly after, it did.
I felt his loss more keenly this year, as we marked Thanksgiving differently inside COVID. Six years ago, we cocooned my mother while companioning my father on his journey, all inside the thanksgiving bubble of remembering — family, childhood gatherings, cousins, grandparents — while testing and recasting family recipes and traditions once again. This year, because of the pandemic, we could not be with my mother at all.
Circumstances have changed in so many ways.
We still talked about recipes, new ones this time, on the phone. She baked a chicken. We had a pork roast, from a pig our son broke down in the back yard. Vegetables came from our garden, eggs from the new “pandemic” chickens. She shopped at 6:30 a.m. to avoid other people. We ate outside in the 48-degree weather, just after a rain shower. Our son down the street, who lives in his own household, stayed home. We took plates to him and a solo neighbor. Then we all spoke together via Zoom, a Gridley Zoom, and a Barstow Zoom. We Zoomed with friends in LA. Distanced walked, masked, with a friend. Ran dessert over to another single friend. In the evening, we lit a fire outside in the cold, remembered my father and toasted tomorrow.
Waves of a collective sense of time, which so many have remarked on during this difficult, sad and horrible year, hold and buffet us.
Some weeks inside the pandemic — in which we have been mandated to isolate physically since March — seem to have but three days: today, yesterday and tomorrow. Other weeks, it feels as if every day has been the same, no week’s end in sight.
Time leading up to the Nov. 4 election, interminable, clanging with noise and chaos, no days and nights at all, simply cycled. Since the election — in which the loser has failed to concede and congress has snuck underground — time is stuck. We hold our breath. What is next?
Yet the virus rages, a wildfire in a harsh wind, insensitive to time, rushing and burning. Those of us who are lucky continue to isolate in our domestic nodes, electric wires humming inward and outward, pulsing with new norms of social communion.
In the quiet of her house, solo, my mother announced she needed a new winter project for all the time she would be alone in the coming dark and cold. She has started to study her genealogy. The printer has moved onto the dining room table in the south window, the bird feeders just beyond. Extra ink cartridges have been ordered. She has spit into a test tube and sent it off. And everyday now, my email is filled with PDF files, articles about … well, everyone she can find.
Her living room is slowly filling with a crowd of vaguely familiar people and voices. Some she remembers from her childhood; others, she remembers being told of; and others come from way, way before. Who are these people now standing by the fire? What did they wear? How did they behave? How did they find each other? What did they smell like? How did they live? How did they die? I have asked her to find out if any family members owned slaves, and so far, it seems one of us was with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
My son has started recording my mother’s stories. And I — well, I am inspired that at this time of profound difficulty, my tiny mother, who is old, defies time. As she looks back, she finds a way to be held moving forward as she is, at heart, determined to survive with her family tucked in closely around her, my father holding her hand.
The birds outside the dining room window continue to dance.
Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”

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