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The Vivid Sounds of Pandemic Silence

By Merrill Hansen

Author's mother, Ruth Katz; the author, Merrill Hansen; author's sister, Leslee Roland (left to right)
Ruth Katz, the author's mother (left); the author (middle); Leslee Roland, the author's sister (right)

I miss my dad! I miss my aunts, uncles and close friends who have left us over the years. I miss the noise!

Sheltering at home has been too quiet for me, even though I talk to my children, my relatives and my friends by phone almost daily. I miss the ruckus of everyday life, I guess it’s predictable under the circumstances: I came down with COVID-19 five days after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order, and have only left the house twice, for short periods of time, with my mask and gloves.

I suspect that the other people in my life feel the same way. My discussions with my relatives and lifelong friends over the phone are becoming more nostalgic, because the coronavirus is creating a new world for us that's unlike anything we've ever experienced, or expected, and we don't know what's coming next. When I talk with the adult children of my mom’s two sisters, whose mothers, like mine, are in their 90s, we talk about how small our mothers’ worlds are getting due to health issues, and how vulnerable they are because of the virus. They're the last of a generation in our family that taught my cousins and close family friends how to appreciate noise at our dinner tables.

These conversations, which turned into debates and arguments that sometimes got angry and overheated, frightened guests who'd never heard noise at the dinner table. But our noise usually included laughter. Likewise, our goodbyes were always noisy, because as people were putting on their coats, there was always someone who wanted to "get the last word in.”

My parents and their families all wanted their children to enjoy being a part of conversations, so they encouraged us, from a very early age, to be comfortable communicating our thoughts and opinions. They taught us the importance of learning about current events, asking questions, having opinions, and being able to explain why we felt the way we did. When we were very young, the conversations were usually age-appropriate, and we could be age-appropriately silly. But what I remember most is that these adults never made us feel uncomfortable. We were nurtured during family discussions. When a cousin and I recently were reminiscing, we agreed that we never felt embarrassed if we answered a question incorrectly. Instead, we were encouraged to continue to be part of the discussion.

The only time I recall crying during a conversation was when an uncle didn’t realize how traumatic it was for me to hear him ask my mother a question that apparently was common at the time. He turned to my mother and said, "Ruthie, if there was a fire, and you could only save one person, would you save Phil (my dad), or would you save Marilynn (me)?" When my mother responded that she would save me, I started to cry. I knew I wanted to be saved, but I didn't want my father left behind in a fire.

By the time I was ten, conversations included such topics as political campaigns, the Eichmann trial, and the news stories about a woman from Arizona who made the difficult decision to have an abortion in Sweden after learning that a drug she took during her pregnancy contained

Thalidomide, which caused babies to be born without limbs.

When I was in my teens, typical dinner conversations were about SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Detroit Riot, Kent State and the Vietnam War. Occasionally, those conversations got raucous. Years later, my father apologized to me, and told me he was wrong to have defended the Vietnam War.

As I began to broaden my social horizons, I learned that there were people who were raised in families that considered certain subjects inappropriate to discuss at the dinner table, if at all. Unfortunately, they were often boyfriends, or young men I hoped to date, or whose friendship I enjoyed. One young man who I was interested in told me that the “deepest” dinner conversations his family had were at Thanksgiving, when his father would go around the dinner table and ask everyone what they were thankful for that year. I couldn't bring myself to tell him that at our last Thanksgiving dinner, we were asked whether or not we would have "named names" during the McCarthy Hearings, to keep from being blacklisted or going to jail. I suggested leaving after dinner.

The first time I invited a date to a family dinner, I knew he would be comfortable because the guests included other family friends our age. At some point during dinner, though, my father brought up the subject of marijuana, which I had not expected. He didn't directly ask any of us whether or not we had ever smoked marijuana; instead, he asked whether or not we thought smoking marijuana could lead to experimenting with other drugs, and eventually heroin addiction. After a few seconds of awkward silence, the daughter of close family friends, who was several years older than my date and I, proudly announced that she not only smoked marijuana, she sold it. She followed that with, "I am a single mother and need the money to make ends meet.” My head almost hit the table. Her own father, who was sitting with her mother, was livid, and yelled, "How can you need money, when your mother and I pay for everything, and we know damn well that "JERRY" and his bookie friends pay you to let them use your house so people can call there and place bets?" I couldn't bring myself to look at my date's face, because I knew what was coming next, "MARILYNN, DID YOU KNOW THAT SHE SELLS MARIJUANA? “No,” I answered truthfully. I didn't mention that I knew about Jerry and his unsavory friends.

My father believed that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, deserves a rigorous defense, and should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty. But, when my cousin informed him during a family dinner that her husband had been asked to assist Angela Davis' defense team, it became apparent that my father did not presume Angela Davis, a controversial political activist who was charged with murder, to be innocent. The conversation ended with my father pounding his fist on the table, and everybody else grabbing their water glasses so they didn't break. I don't recall the young man, whose friendship I enjoyed, asking to be invited again. As a memorial to my father, on the Thanksgiving following his death, my cousins and I reenacted that discussion, with me pounding my fist on the table.

On another occasion, a cousin and I each invited a boyfriend to a big family dinner. Both young men were very intelligent and pleasant, and assured us that they never felt uncomfortable discussing current events. That may have been true, until my father and uncle began the dinner conversation by asking everyone what they thought about Vanessa Redgrave having referred to the Jewish Defense League as "Zionist hoodlums" in her acceptance speech during the Academy Awards. And what did we think of Paddy Chayefsky's response to her comments, saying that he was sick and tired of “people” (referring to Redgrave), exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards to propagate their personal political propaganda? (“I would like to suggest to Ms. Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not an epic moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple thank-you would have sufficed.") My cousin and I couldn't help but laugh when we saw the looks on our boyfriends' faces and realized that they had no idea who Vanessa Redgrave was.

But I also learned during one holiday dinner that there was a subject that was never to be discussed. As my sister and my young niece sat down at the dinner table, one of my aunts asked, “Where’s Leslie?’ referring to my sister's husband. My sister looked surprised and replied, "Why would Leslie be here? We've been divorced for over a year. You talk to my mother every week; didn't she tell you?" Then, like a scene in a movie, my mother said, "Nobody ever asked.”

I miss the noise.

Merrill Hansen is a legal assistant, living in West Bloomfield, Michigan. She describes herself as a frustrated writer, who wishes she could be Nora Ephron (when she was alive), if only for a day. She is a news-, political- and FB-junkie, a combination that requires a constant reminder that she needs to take deep cleansing breaths when responding to people who don't agree with her.



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