“Write it down,” my friend said.
We were sitting on my front porch, late one Saturday afternoon. I want to describe it as a gray and drizzling scene, with a thin ribbon of cool air riding a warm breeze, the signal of oncoming weather. In truth, I can’t remember this particular detail. The day may have been lovely, clear as a bell. Perhaps the lack of recall, four weeks later, is what should be preserved in the record.
We were toasting an accomplishment of hers, a now-or-never milestone she had reached that warranted Champagne and an in-person celebration, even if we had to sit far apart and stay outdoors. The porch was covered in pollen and bird droppings (there was a nest, Bernard and I suspected, one of the ceiling fans), and around us were boxes of discarded papers, old yearbooks, photographs, and bed sheets, the last remaining boxes of things from my mother’s house that had been gathering dust and spiderwebs for 15 years in a room we did not use. Our family had begun the quarantine with vigor that quickly dissipated, leaving all the evidence in plain sight.
I should have swept, at least, but I did not. The friend had been quite clear (no cleaning!) and I complied. It was an impromptu celebration, plopped in the middle of a pile of shit.
We began, as usual, with philosophical matters that would winnow and shape into specifics. How the earth was starting to heal itself. How heavily we were all drinking these days. How many people had been sick or unemployed. The beautiful music from Italy. The octogenarian doctor (my teenage-years dermatologist) who had died. How the birds seemed louder, brighter in the mornings.
Virus, virus burning bright; did he who made the Lamb make thee?
We ate green chile stew, sat on dirty chairs, moved on to garden-variety topics: Our families, books, Nate at the farmers market who sells the beautiful fresh eggs. How painting crown molding the color of the wall will make a room seem taller. The virtues and vices of metro shelving. Dogs.
How was I doing, my friend wanted to know; how was work? (A source of both guilt and gratitude, I thought, though I’m not sure I said exactly that.)
Work was overwhelming, but strangely energizing. I was anxious, but we as a family, were actually doing better than ever. Calmer, more relaxed. Gentle. The absence of busyness had helped all of us, especially me. Being home with my children for the final months of my son’s high school years was simply a gift. Task switching between Zoom calls and being a short order cook (“Mom, will you make me some lunch?”) was also a gift, though one that, like work, was wrapped in a combination of guilt and gratitude.
And then, as we finished our stew (drinking cold beer to blunt the heat of the chile), I told my friend this utterly ordinary story:
At dinner in mid-March, when we thought schools were closed for only two weeks (even though we knew better) and the full gravity had yet to sink in, I had asked my son how he was feeling about the disruptions and likely disappointments. It’s terrible, he had said, but at the same time it’s kind of cool to live through something that’s never happened before. “I mean,” he said, “I’ll get to tell my grandchildren what it was like, how all of this started, and nobody knew what to do, and we had to figure it out, like in a movie only it’s my actual life.”
Write it down, she said. You have to write all of this down so you can remember, so we can remember the specific moments. Think of all the letters, she said, sent during plagues and wars, stories that tell us what real life was like.
The next day, with her note of thanks, she forwarded a snippet of news: Stationery sales are booming, with three- and four-fold increases, year-over-year, and scores of people penning letters, signing and stamping the poetry of our collective history.
Write it down.
All of this happened on the last weekend of our full sheltering in place, the weekend before our city began the slow process of its initial reopening. Our small porch celebration marked the end of the Great Pause, though we didn’t know it at the time.
I looked at the weather history. A front moved through on the evening of May 2, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees by 11 PM. The late afternoon was still and muggy, with a hint of storm to come.