sheltering in place

On the one hand, there are the terrible reports, the skyrocketing statistics, the freezer truck morgues. On the other, long uninterrupted spring days, and family, together again, in the nest. On the one hand more sirens, on the other, more birdsong—a bewildering paradox.

My husband, who is trying to triage his bleeding business from the home office with spotty wifi, is so tightly wound that if touch him I think he might explode, and all the coiled clock works will spring out. My friend’s husband is so convinced he is going to die that he sleeps on the couch, and won’t get within six feet of his own family members. I’ve had to stop watching the tv news. All it did was frighten me, and I know I won’t be able to do my job well if I’m frightened.

Instead, I try to attend to what is closely at hand, at a new, slower pace. I take the warm towels from the dryer and press them to my chest, my hands smoothing the cotton into long, flat plains. I cut bare branches and arrange them in vases of water, knowing they will bloom in the warmth of the house. I iron pillowcases, pushing the nose of the hot iron all the way into the corners, steaming out the wrinkles, one by one.

Sometimes, I am present. Sometimes, not so much, slipping back into a reflexive emergency mindset. I made an excel spread sheet chore chart for the family, listing every bloody task that needed doing in a complex, multi-colored rotation. When I called a meeting to review it, the family had some questions, and a few gripes, but were mostly resigned they would have to succumb to Mom’s practical wrath.

But my 24-year-old daughter Ivy, who had just spent a year working as a new teacher, spoke up. “This is fine, Mom” she said, “and I’m happy to do it this way if you want, but I thought I’d suggest another way. Instead of us all doing everything separately, and alone, what if we set aside a few hours a few times a week, and crank some music, and do it together, and make it fun?”

Fun? My weak flank, exposed. For so many years as a divorced, single mom, I know I held the reins too tightly, trying to keep us all balanced on one horse, trying to keep the horse on the road, when it seemed so dark, and I couldn’t see the way. I was often too worried and tired to play, let alone sing. And while life got easier once I remarried, new traumas appeared, and I may never have really recovered my fun.

I smiled at Ivy’s suggestion. Everyone smiled. Her idea was so clearly better, and I said so, and we went on to discuss the ins and outs of her plan. Even my husband, who hovered around the edges of the meeting looking nervous, stayed in the room.

Chores have not exactly been a success story in our household. I never took the time to prioritize them, or teach my kids how to do them, or maybe I couldn’t tolerate the bad job they would do when they tried, so I never consistently asked them to do the the garage cleaning, the lawn mowing, the raking of the leaves. These were all things my siblings and I did growing up, under my father’s bossy Saturday morning tutelage, and not raising my children to do the same has made me profoundly uneasy. Tom and I share a mule-like capacity for hard work, and one of my greatest fears is that my children do not. I worry that my older ones spend all their time and energy feeding and comforting themselves, trying to heal hearts broken by the divorce, by their father’s alcoholism, and subsequent death.

But when chore day arrived, my children surprised me. Ivy cranked the Rolling Stones and began to mop the kitchen and bathrooms. Twenty-one-year-old Will vacuumed the first and second floors within an inch of their lives. Fourteen-year-old Ben ran around emptying trash cans, stripping beds, and delivering armloads of sheets to the laundry room. And even my son Sam, who is now 27, but who was ill for years, and unable to participate in many things, got down on his hands and knees in the bathrooms, and scrubbed the toilets. We opened the windows while we worked, and let the cool, clean air swirl around us. I sat back, and marveled at the subtle shifts that can occur, if you let them.

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