By Jane Fishman
“Alexa, do baby giraffes have spots?’
“Alexa, when will I die?”
The pandemic brings out different concerns for different people. The seven-year-old, who loves giraffes, knows where to go for answers. The 77-year-old, who knows there are no answers, is grasping at straws. That’s what a pandemic does. People are dying, lots of people, careful people. Will we be next? In the meantime, we wear our masks, we debate cleaning our groceries, we clean out our pantries. So that’s where all the flaxseed has been hiding. We scrub down the honey-caked shelves, organize the cans.
We paw through stacks of spiral notebooks tossed over decades in blue plastic milk cartons. I find a black-and-white composition book of my mother’s. One page per month, written in pencil, her loopy handwriting growing more and more indistinguishable. The highlights. April 1989: Root canal, lunch with Harry and Maggie, Michelle’s bar mitzvah, Lucille Ball died. November 1990: accident Middlebelt and 14 Mile Road, Dorothy tumor on colon. November 1991: Dorothy very sick, Dorothy died.
I reread Geraldine Brooks’ novel Year of Wonders about the bubonic plague in 17th century England. In Michael Cunningham’s book, The Hours, I read, “She offers her cheek for a kiss as she goes out to buy flowers for her big party” and I think, “Whoa, you really shouldn’t do that.” We watch the arresting Snowpiercer by the South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho and then four more of his dark, dark movies. It’s a good time for dark movies.
The fourth time I watch Hamilton, I hear the lyric, “The world will never be the same.”
On the High Holy Days I rethink the meaning of, “May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life.”
Death is on my mind.
Then oddly enough I get a “shelter-in-place” check from my insurance company for $14.12. The next month I get another one for $13.76. No explanation. I cash them both at a drive-through bank. I miss my in-person bank teller.
A neighbor trades some homemade rye bread for a big batch of homegrown collard greens and one big old rutabaga. We sequester at home. To myself (I would never say it out loud), I think, “Life is good.” Until I have to go to Staples for a black-and-white print cartridge. Get me in, get me out, I think. This is the kind of foot soldier I’d be in Vietnam. On edge, tense. I hear Lucinda Williams sing, “You took my joy, I want it back, you took my joy, I want it back” and I listen to it again and again because while not lonely, I’m scared. I request an onion pie for my May birthday.
That was last year. Now, doubly vaccinated and still standing, there are lessons from 2020. I recently went to a soft opening of a new restaurant. I was hoping we’d be seated outside. We weren’t. The room was loud, people were table-hopping. There were lots of expensive cocktails being served. I hunched down in the booth and looked around. I saw lots of familiar faces, people I hadn’t seen in at least a year, good people, people I like, people who do good things, work hard, think outside the box. A few have been to my house. But here’s the thing, I don’t think I talked to–or thought of–one of them during the social hiatus known as Covid. No calls, no texts, no emails. In short, there was no one I saw that night I had missed.
Things could change, of course, post-Covid. In months I could be chitchatting with any number of people I saw that night, at the weekly farmers’ market debating the merits of different mushrooms, during the crush of an art opening, next to the surf on the beach. That would be fine, but following a year of relative isolation, I feel a little skittish. I know it’s important to branch out and include all kinds of people in our lives. But for now, after carefully distilling who I’m around, I’m not at all sure when that will happen.
P.S. Baby giraffes are born with spots.
Jane Fishman’s got a great life in Savannah. She gets to grow garlic, write newspaper columns in the Savannah Morning News about any wacko she can find (and get paid for it), publish books (her latest: I’d Rather Be Seen Than Viewed, a collection of her columns; preceded by So What’s the Hurry? Tales From the Train ; I Grew it My Way, How Not to Garden; The Dirt on Jane; and The Woman Who Saved an Island, the Story of Sandy West and Ossabaw Island), listen in on conversations with her two grandchildren, Baker and Benny, while going on morning nature walks as they debate which is better, living in the country or the city (“I like both habitats,” says 7-year-old Benny). Fishman owned a laundromat in Eureka Springs, Ark., cooked in a French restaurant in Key West, won a bunch of journalism awards in Savannah for humorous and serious columns. When she lived in Chicago and worked at WTTW public television, she met Fran of Kukla, Fran and Ollie and watched Abbie Hoffman rant at the trial of the Chicago 7. Fishman grew up in Detroit (Huntington Woods, really), where she never owned a car. She was the sports editor of her high school newspaper (The Acorn) at Royal Oak Dondero. This is her first wedding.