My grandmother travelled alone from the Slovakia region of Austria Hungary to Galveston, Texas shortly before the outbreak of World War I. She was a young woman then with a lifetime stretching before her. She joined her husband in an unknown world to forge a future. At first she worked at various jobs outside of her home but as her family grew she mostly confined herself to the duties of caring for her husband and children. After ten pregnancies and the loss of two of her babies she suffered a mental breakdown and was involuntarily sent to a state hospital in Austin. Once she returned she never again left her home other than a few times when she experienced health emergencies that required hospitalization. The extent of her world was contained within the perimeter of her property where she busied herself with daily routines until she died in her eighties.
I never thought much about my grandmother’s isolation. She spoke only a handful of English words and so our communication consisted of mostly smiles. She had kind blue eyes and she was eager to be a good hostess by offering mugs of coffee to anyone who came to visit, including the children. She made the brew palatable for us by filling the enamel cups with mostly milk and sugar. After that she would join us in the living room, sitting in a chair in the corner just watching the proceedings from her perch while we sadly tended to ignore her and even forget that she was supposed to be the reason for our visit.
She had turned the entirety of her tiny backyard into a garden that gave her something to do other than cooking and cleaning. She’d putter among in the plants in her bare feet watering from a rain barrel rather than a hose. I never actually saw her wearing shoes even in the winter. She had long before foregone the societal rules of dressing, instead using a few well worn cotton dresses as her wardrobe. She wore her hair in a long braid down her back until one of her children gave her a short haircut that may have been easier to care for but was never as lovely as the braid.
Two of Grandma’s single sons lived with her. They watched over her, brought her groceries, made repairs on the house, and kept her company when they were not working. She seemed happy enough in her routine but I did not know for certain what she was thinking. It never occurred to me to wonder what it must have been like to be completely homebound for years, but I have been thinking about her a great deal in the last few days as I have been restricted to the smaller world of my house by the outbreak of Covid-19.
It has almost been two weeks since I self isolated into the confines of my home other than for excursion to doctors and pickup points for groceries. I have almost infinite potential for busying myself and I have to admit that the time has gone by more quickly than I might have imagined. As long as my source of food replacements and deliveries from Amazon continue I will have access to anything that I might need. I have regular communication with family and friends and enjoy hours of entertainment with my books, my laptop, my television and my garden. In truth the only thing that I truly miss is the touch of human interaction and the freedom and joy of becoming one with a crowd. I already long for adventurous days, and as I admit to myself that it’s difficult to be constrained I think of my grandmother and marvel at the contentment that she seemed to possess in spite of her very simple life.
I suppose that we humans adapt to our circumstances just as my grandmother did. People have endured great hardships throughout history and my little foray into a temporary quarantine is nothing compared to the four hundred plus days that Anne Frank spent hiding in an attic to avoid capture and imprisonment in a concentration camp. When I get antsy and a bit resentful that my independence has been curtailed I remind myself that this too will one day pass and I may even find myself rushing around and longing for a bit of solitude. I know that the key is to make the most of the moment and be grateful that I am able to spend the time in so much comfort.
I’ve always been a fan of Henry David Thoreau. Before the world ever heard of Marie Kando he was urging us to simplify, simplify, simplify. My days inside my home have allowed me to see and hear things that I might otherwise have ignored. I laugh at the squirrel who scampers among the birdseed that falls from the feeder that is designed to keep him from becoming a thief. I smile at the children keeping a social distance from one another on their skateboards while their moms shout at one another from the safety of their front porches. I marvel at the incredible kindnesses that I have witnessed and the sense of humor that keeps us laughing even in the midst of uncertainty. I have slowed my pace and joined my grandmother in freeing my feet from shoes and wearing clothes selected for comfort rather than style. I feel no sense of urgency other than to wish that this plague would leave us to end the suffering of those who have become ill and to return our world to a normal state before its economic trajectory takes people’s lives into a downward spiral.
If staying inside my home helps to end the contagion and defeat the virus then I am happy to accommodate. There will be social occasions, nights out, trips and adventures soon enough. My sacrifice is nothing in the long range scheme of things. If my grandmother could do it for all those years then so can I. She is my role model, the person who will show me the way to accept this small inconvenience with grace.