01 Sep Show me what apocalypse looks like/This is what apocalypse looks like
I should have written more during the pandemic. But writing requires a certain level of motivation, and pandemics have a way of draining the motivation from you. In many ways it seems silly to talk about survival when I have a full refrigerator, Christmas gifts bought in August, the sun shining, a cat purring, and a workday ahead of me. Life goes on as usual, but not entirely as usual.
Kids still whine about video games. There is still breakfast to make. We can curl up and watch Netflix at night with a cup of tea or glass of wine. This is a strange kind of apocalypse. I am lucky. It isn’t the same for everyone. People are dead. Not just from COVID-19, but from the ripple effects. My friend who works in a nursing home says she has seen once-vibrant people shrivel up from isolation. Maybe we are all just aging. But some of us are doing it alone, maybe more quickly than we would have, otherwise.
And we still don’t know how the kids will end up.
I’m on edge. We’re waiting to hear from school about what the virtual classroom will be like. I’m trying to be patient. School has been communicative, but we are all building this plane while we are flying it, and there are things we don’t know yet. Tonight there is a parent forum. This week we find out who the kids’ teachers are. It may not be teachers they know. Things are different.
We’re thinking to bring the kids to the office for virtual school, for a change of pace. To have some semblance of a normal day where you leave the house.
I didn’t write this down yet, the not leaving the house. The online ordering of groceries, the formulaic spraying of every single item, leaving the mail outside for three or more days, our careful system of paper grocery bags for items dropped on our doorstep so that we didn’t mix things up and bring something inside before the germs had enough time to die.
And there are reasons. As I write this, I have four dolls on top of me, and Henry is also lying on top of me. I say to people that I can’t take a meeting after 5 p.m. because that’s when I’m covered in children. I wonder if they know that I mean it literally. I am often covered in children. It’s nice in a way, and it’s irritating in a way. But less irritating when you don’t have something else you’re supposed to be doing.
I keep thinking we’ll go back to that any time now, we’ll go back to the full lockdown, not seeing my parents or Cory’s parents. We won’t open the door when people knock. We’ll hang signs in our windows as if we are prisoners. We will be afraid to walk down our own street, and stash cans of beans in our basement. I realized after I bought beans that I don’t want to eat beans in the apocalypse, I want to eat Doritos and seltzer and Oreos and all the Triscuits in the world. I average one box of Triscuits a night. Pre-pandemic, I didn’t buy these things. We were almost fully zero waste, shopping from bulk bins, making our own almond milk, crackers, granola bars from scratch. When everyone started making bread, I had already been doing so for a few months.
Now Henry’s trying to lick my typing hands. This is mom life. He demands my attention when it’s elsewhere. So working from home is really great. Really Really GREAT. We have resorted to screen time more than I care to admit, but so has nearly every other parent I’ve talked about this with. None of us are happy about it, but this is how we survive. “Survive.”
At one point there was a tipping point between mental health and protection from coronavirus. So we opened up, then. It was big to admit, this is the breaking point, I’d rather be exposed to this thing than go another day trying to work and handle the kids alone or walk around our own yard one more time. You realize the tiny conversations you have through the door are so necessary they feel like water when you’re thirsty, that we really do need human interaction to survive. It’s nothing as extreme as oxygen, the desperation you feel when you hold your breath. It’s more like thirst. It creeps up on you, and you most realize how thirsty you were after you have a drink of water and just want more and more and more until you feel normal again.
So we opened up. We saw the kids’ grandparents. They took on some childcare. It was glorious. And odd. The same way I felt dropping Henry off at their house for the very first time as a child, like I was some refugee leaving my baby at the doorstep of a kind stranger, having to trust and release. The quiet of the house without them, how unsettling it was, but also how much of a relief it was. Strange to think we used to spend all day apart, five days a week.
(Now Ellie is climbing on me with peanut butter breath and her feet in my face. Covered in children.)
And then we opened up more, seeing the cousins. It was wonderful to see Ellie and Evie talk about Frozen and sing and dance together. The first time in months the kids saw other kids. We had driven by some friends’ houses and talked out the window, but playing is different. We did a couple of tentative play dates and then, as the numbers in Warren County went down and stayed down, we settled into a routine of going to the Jackson Heights parking lot every night with a group of other families. The kids bike and keep their distance while the parents chat. We aren’t alone in our worries. We form deeper friendships. Nobody knows what’s coming up next, but we are in it together.
It has been more than two weeks since my Poppy died. I have wanted to write about it, but I have been emotionally exhausted. The day after his funeral was like a spiritual, emotional, physical hangover. I felt fragile, despondent, a half-step over catatonic. If you touch me I’ll cry. My neck is killing me. Night before last I hardly slept. But still, there was work to do, and children on top of me. And so I channeled the song from Frozen, “Next Right Thing.”
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing
I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
I want to write down everything I know about Poppy, to try and save him for when my memories fade. To make a backup. To never lose him. But feeling how enormous that is, to try and make a log of every memory when this isn’t just a person I kind of knew and could write a few paragraphs about, it’s overwhelming. It’s easier to write something about someone you have known for a few years than someone you have known closely your whole life.
I’m going to take just one step and write the easy things. He loved tennis, popcorn, coffee ice cream, skiing, country music, the Dallas Cowboys, parades. He was a Navy veteran. He was a couch potato, Mimi called him, and they’d have to replace couches because he’d wear out his one spot. I remember being shy around him, and asking Mimi for popcorn. She said I’d have to ask him, and I was nervous, but I did, and he gladly filled up the yellow ceramic bowl with popcorn from the air popper, and we cuddled up on his side of the couch to enjoy it together.
He had a brown truck. I don’t think you see many of those. In my memory, the windows on the truck cap had a decoration like the yellow popcorn bowl. I remember Poppy in his grey and navy blue skiing jacket. Putting wood in the fireplace, or out back stacking wood. Coming home and turning on football and we had to watch cartoons in their bedroom, jumping on the four-poster bed.
Poppy’s workshop in the basement wasn’t somewhere we were supposed to be, but that’s where the laundry chute came out, so we would throw things down the chute in the bathroom and go downstairs to see it landed in the landry basket. Poppy’s workshop seemed neat and tidy, in my memory. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. But my vague memory is that it was clean-swept, not like my dad’s workshop. Poppy taught Dad how to build houses, the business he built on his own when he left his family’s business, Roofers Supplies. Poppy had been in sales and it gave him a stomachache and that’s when he switched from coffee to tea and left the family’s business to go out on his own. Mimi told me about it a week or so ago, how he said one day that he was going to leave and then he did the very next day, and they had to give back the company car and she was worried about what they were going to do next. But Poppy built a spec house, and sold it, and then they did that for a while. Mimi says she wasn’t working at the time, but she was really right there alongside him putting together the houses and keeping track of everything, plus making dinner and doing laundry and all those things wives did in those days. Mimi and Poppy were both the rebels of the family — Mimi’s family were strict Baptists, but Mimi liked red lipstick and dancing. She and Poppy met at church.
And Poppy taught Dad how to build houses. And all over Killington there are houses that my Poppy and my Dad built. I should make a map of them. People around town loved them. They never advertised, it was all word of mouth. Honest guys, quality work. I have sometimes felt guilty about not learning to build houses myself, that generations of this specific knowledge haven’t lived on. But I did learn by assimilation, how a home office works, how you’re not done working just because nobody’s watching you, how to take ownership of your mistakes and “eat the cost,” how to take phone calls, be a regular guy, explain things in plain terms, be honest and communicative, and how to juggle the work and family priorities. These are things that they passed down, even if I’m not building houses.
My dad called him J.A. sometimes. He wanted me to play tennis. Erika and I did take a lesson once, with a camp counselor named Grady. I was okay at serving, but not much else. The heat on the Rec. Center court just radiated in the hot sun. It was too hot. That’s what I remember about tennis. Too hot, and I want to sit down and drink water. He wanted us to be lifeguards, but I was never a strong swimmer, and the lifeguards were the cool kids who seemed confident wearing a bathing suit and being seen and blowing a whistle to talk to strangers. I didn’t know how to tell him that I wasn’t lifeguard material, but I always felt badly that I didn’t do it.
He came over while dad and I were in the backyard throwing a ball, and he showed me how to do it, straight forward from the ear. He was patient with me while I learned. My dad and I, neither of us were really the athletic type, not big sports people, but we tried a little bit for Poppy.
He loved parades. He and Mimi came here to Glens Falls for the Memorial Day parade, maybe a couple of times. He waved to everyone like he knew them, saluted, waved his flag. Same at the bottom of the driveway in Killington during the Fourth of July.
Poppy’s roots were important to him, and he had once spent summers in Alfred, New York, at his Uncle Miner and Aunt Sadie’s house, working on the farm. We went out to the Homestead once, when I was pregnant with Henry. He was so excited about Henry, he would say to the hotel concierge, the waitstaff, anyone we met, “That’s my great-grandson in there!”
He loved babies. When I called from Florida to tell him I was pregnant with Danny, he said, “I’m going to play tennis extra hard today!” He was still playing tennis just five years ago, at 88. It was around then that he went up in Andrew’s hot air balloon. Andrew had said he didn’t take old people; that if the landing was a hard one, it could really hurt them, that old knees don’t take impact as well as young knees. But I talked him into taking Mimi and Poppy up and when the day came, Poppy climbed right in with ease, almost jumping right in and surprising everyone. We have a video of him waterskiing at age 77. He was quite the athlete.
One of Erika’s funniest Poppy memories is him saying to one of her boyfriends that she could cook and clean. (Not really her thing.) He was trying to talk her up, in the way he knew how. And once he told our cousin Matt, “You know what you need to do, find yourself a woman who can knit.” Mimi knit Poppy some argyle socks early on in their relationship and he never forgot it. Mimi’s still knitting socks, but now they’re crazy colors, not just argyle.
And another favorite Poppy memory is the striped couch. One day Mimi noticed a stripe coming off the couch, but it was just a piece of floss, carefully laid there to blend in with the stripe, for when Poppy needed to floss after eating popcorn.
It’s exhausting to try and write it all down, but there’s some of it. We will tell Poppy stories for years to come.
I remember the moment that Papa John became a legend instead of a person we know in our daily life. I was telling Henry about him, we were driving somewhere. And I told him about how strong Papa John was, that he could pick up a bag of concrete with one hand and toss it up on a truck. It sounds like a tall tale, but it’s our family lore now, and it’s true.
So there is something special about writing it down. Mimi writes down lots of her memories, and I’m glad for that. Poppy is our newest chapter in the family history book, as a legend, passing from real life into being the man in the stories. And the stories are funny ones, and ones about him being everyone’s dad, and a steady, loving, radiant source of support. It is interesting to see what you become when people talk about you, and that’s all there is left, is the memories. Which ones turn gold and stay, and become the you that people know now, the you that lasts beyond your life. When you are a statue placed in the trophy case someone’s mind, what words describe that statue —
Poppy’s golden impression is that he was steady, loving, radiant, supportive, athletic, rebellious, and funny.
The kids are gone now, off to their cousins’ house to spend the day with the grandparents. It’s quiet, and I’m feeling like I still haven’t written everything down, even though it has been hours now that I’ve been writing.
Today we will get more answers about school, and maybe the answers about the arts trail that I’ve been waiting years on. Maybe Cory and I will walk down our street, because we’ve only done that once or twice since the pandemic and we should do it before it’s truly fall. Here we are at September first, thinking about whether we have to go underground again.
But I will just take that next step, and not get too far ahead. Right now, it’s to stop writing and to get dressed.