Speaking for myself, the Pandemic changed a lot of things. For over a year, I seldom left my house and I was fine with that. Each excursion into the outside world was an anxiety-provoking ordeal. Eleven months ago, my insurance company pointed out to me that I hadn’t seen a doctor in 2020, and would I please cut that shit right out? Okay, I said, and started making appointments. Then Pete and I had COVID. We had mild cases, but when we had the opportunity to get vaccinated in the spring, we jumped at the chance. Even so, I mostly stayed in the house until late September and in early October, I was called into the office twice a week. I hate it. It’s awkward. The building is cold and I have to put on shoes and socks and pants, damn it. I have to put on pants.
But the Pandemic also introduced something new in my neighborhood: mutual aid with strangers.
Over a year ago and after the end of the quarantine, Pete and I and our neighbor Andie started putting books, mugs, extra Mason jars, clothing, tables, all sorts of extraneous things in boxes on the sidewalk with a sign that said FREE. People took books because everyone was spending more time at home. Some people were reluctant to take things if we were on the porch. We encouraged them to take whatever interested them, and when they did, we put out more stuff. This has been helpful as we empty my mother’s house. It’s been more than two and a half years since Mom died, and now that stepdad Tom has moved out, we are still sorting through a shocking amount of useless, stored stuff.
This morning, I was studying, then went out for short walk. The air was crisp and cool; the sunlight bright. During the time we were all at home, I would walk this same path and see lots of my neighbors had the same idea. They put out tables or rugs with unneeded objects for anyone to take. Three houses down today, I found this table, which I had not seen before. I remembered a box I’d forgotten about a couple of months ago, and time passes so strangely now. When I got home, I put out the box on the sidewalk and added five matching mugs that someone else could use. I’m going to look around this afternoon for other things to give away.
Before the Pandemic, I would have bet against most of my neighbors talking to me. Andie and I spent a lot of time on the porch this summer working from home, her more than me. New people moved in across the street and Andie declared their antics, “the best TV ever.” There’s a small boy who appears to be boneless. His father does pushups in the yard and parks his van on the lawn. The boy’s mother may have had enough of absolutely everyone and everything, and there are visiting cousins. Their friends stand in the driveway and drink until all hours and the little boy stands around with them. I’m almost sad it’s winter and this circus has been driven indoors. But who knows, maybe they’ll stay another year. These neighbors studiously avoid eye contact and do not interact with anyone outside their circle of friends. Other neighbors now seek out conversation. Last week, a neighborhood tuxedo cat was out walking a man and when the cat stopped to talk with me, so did the man. That’s never happened to me before. Andie tells me it she sees them regularly. I’m still concerned about meeting up with crazy people, but I am cautiously thinking about getting out more.
About a month ago, the local power company dug up the pipes in front of my duplex house – and not just my house, but all the houses on my crooked block. The jackhammering went on for three weeks. As I have been working from home, this was driving me stark ravers. I fixated on a point: the workers, mostly interchangeable white men of indeterminate shaving habits, appeared to work six days a week without a bathroom in a New Jersey July. My co-workers and I referred to these workers as The Anthonys because, as I mentioned, the racket made coherent thought nearly impossible and, as you know, I am not a nice person.
The Anthonys – and at some points there were at least a dozen of them – dug up plants along the edge of my neighbor Andie’s front yard, which might be 14′ x 10′. It’s not large at all. I fretted about the plants, hated the drilling noises and was mystified when a holly tree, trimmed to about 3′ in height, disappeared. Several forsythia disappeared. I located the holly on the side of the house. Then, an Anthony grabbed the holly and started walking away with it. It was then I uttered the immortal words, “WHERE ARE YOU GOING? THAT’S MY BUSH!”
I stood up straight, remembered I am a hard woman and said, “That’s my tree. Destroying them is illegal in New Jersey. Replant that.” Next thing I knew, an Anthony with a shovel was digging a hole. I said, “I’m sorry you got the terrible job.”
“To be honest,” he said, “this is all I do around here.” I had to fold myself in half to laugh hard enough. Andie chose this moment to burst from the house with a vengeful look on her face.
“Too much fun is being had out here,” she said. I looked back at the guy digging a hole for a small holly tree in 90 degree heat.
“No,” I said, “No one is having any fun here.”
The road crew moved to another block up the street, then around the corner, then further down. Or maybe it moved to another town, I can’t really tell. The crews are everywhere on this side of our small down, and all the roads bear the scars of digging and temporary patching sometimes two and three times. Tomorrow morning, I am going to drive the .3 miles to the farmers market, where Andie and I will buy five cases of tomatoes from the organic farmers and drive them home. If I were a nicer person, I might be concerned about the scorn of my neighbors, but my neighbors made the power company make an appointment to dig up their yard, thus subjecting the rest of us to three consecutive Fridays in which our garbage was not picked up. In 90 degree New Jersey. In July. So fuck them. I will also buy peaches.
When I was 14, I turned a corner in the park near my house and saw a skinny boy I’d never seen before painting a metal equipment locker, and I loved him at first sight. There were many ups and downs along the way – some I thought the friendship wouldn’t survive – but that doesn’t matter anymore, does it? He was brilliant, and I will miss him all my life.
I’m sitting on my front porch, watching the parade of suburban humanity on its walk to a nearby park, where my tiny town will stage its annual fireworks display. Towns here are bunched up next to each other. Last night, on Independence Day proper, more than half a dozen towns or cities close by set off cacophonous displays well into the night that pissed off pets up and down the Northeast Corridor. My cats huddled on top of me, hoping for reassurance and fishy treats. Tonight, the big booms won’t go on for seeming eternity, but they’ll be closer. You bet your ass I have my hand on the bag of fishy treats.
So let’s talk about vegetables.
This year, the unnamed university furloughed its workers for one day per week for ten weeks. My union settled on an agreement last so I had time to plan for this hit to my wallet. In the spring, I bought into a CSA with my favorite organic farmers. In practice, this means I march over to the farmers market on Fridays, where the farmer hands me a bag of vegetables, I spin on my heel and march homeward. This arrangement paid for itself five weeks into the season when I wasn’t making a weekly pilgrimage to the credit union to drain my checking account to pick up cash. Hooray! Related: holy smokes, my fridge is full of vegetables. How am I going to get Pete to eat them?
Pete, a chef, regards most vegetables on his plate as personal insults. What are they doing there, taking up valuable space where spaghetti could be? No one knows! You may think I am exaggerating, but no. As I laid this fresh haul on the counter last Friday, I could see immediately Pete would never touch summer squash, kale would be a struggle and cucumbers would require some careful planning. I love summer squash. I sauteed it with butter and sliced onions and froze it for winter, when these flavors will remind me of hot sun and bare feet. I peeled and sliced the cucumbers with some onions and quick pickled them with sugar, gentle spices and apple cider vinegar. After 24 hours, they were ready to taste. Another cucumber from last week’s CSA became creamy tzatziki sauce. This afternoon, I piled pickled onion slices on a lengua taco and was insufferably pleased with my handiwork. Tomorrow, I will trim the kale and simmer it gently for a long time with some salt pork, as I would collards. If that sits on a plate next to a delicious protein, Pete will eat that and feel virtuous describing it to his doctor.
Last night, I made a stir fry with leftover chicken and Canton noodles that included the broccoli, which I steamed before frying. I would eat Canton noodles off a hair brush, but Pete is more circumspect. Parsnips from our garden, celery, garlic, garlic scapes and fennel from the organic farmer, onion and pepper from a neighbor’s garden came together nicely enough with soy sauce, ponzu and toasted sesame oil. Though broccoli is not usually a problem at dinnertime, I do feel like I got away with something, and I do not regret it.
Every summer, I buy a mess o’ beets from this same organic farmer. I roast beets with olive oil and salt, drop them into jars with brine and process the jars in boiling water. It’s messy, sweaty, sticky work that pays off all winter long. My whole family, including my beet-resistant stepdad Tom, will eat the beets I jar. Pete eats them regularly, so I was looking for a fresh take on fresh beets. In the Joy of Cooking, I found a recipe for roast beets with apples, but I had pears, courtesy of a neighbor. I thought the combination as a warm salad sounded promising. And it was. I guess. Will I make that again? [Insert mumbling here,] by which I mean probably not, no.
The last thing on the table is an onion. It looks nervous, doesn’t it? We were in a bar once and Some Guy asked Pete, “As a chef, what one ingredient could you never be without?” Immediately and with conviction, Pete said, “Onions.” My guess is this onion knows it has entered the lair of its enemy.
Ah! The fireworks have started. I’m ready with fishy treats.
Generally speaking, I’ve written an annual report in January or February at the latest, but this year, I’m not sure what to say. I couldn’t make things and mail them places without a recipient building a bonfire or worse. So I’m declaring a year of Jubilee and we will all meet up again next winter for donation numbers, etc., when conditions will be different. In the meantime, let’s gossip!
We may or may not be in the same situations historically, and that may make a big difference in the Too Soon? factor, so I’m picking punch lines carefully. I spent most of a year inside my house, but Pete was an essential worker at the local home and garden center, and our housemate didn’t miss a day of work at a gas station the whole year, so naturally in January, Pete caught a cold, then tested positive on a Monday for COVID. He literally had cold symptoms. As soon as he tested positive, I had about three days or twenty minutes – STOP LAUGHING! – before I got sick. The health department called Pete and questioned him extensively about his whereabouts. I tested positive that Friday and recorded symptoms diligently every hour in case I had to explain the progress of my illness to anyone, but no one, including health departments or my doctor, asked me anything. How could no one be asking questions about my TOTALLY UNIQUE COVID EXPERIENCE? But, friends, no one did.
The first thing I did with my new antibodies was swan around in the Asian market, restocking my freezer and getting over my fear of other human beings. I’d been in my house for nearly a year. I craved frozen pork bao and wonton skins more than I was afraid of people walking toward me in a grocery store aisle. For lunch today, I steamed mini soup dumplings; they were brothy and porky and you should find an Asian market near you with an extensive frozen foods section and buy up your favorites. Life is short, and you should ruin a few shirts with soy sauce.
The second thing I did was make an appointment with my hairdresser. At no time in my life had I ever gone a year without at least a trim. My father’s family was full of Sicilian hairdressers, and my grandmother’s way of saying, “I love you,” was to cry out, “ARE YOU USING CONDITIONER?” My hairdresser is not exactly my cousin, but he could be. Sicily is a small island. Anyway, he sheared many tufts off me and we made an appointment for a subsequent haircut. I glided out of the shop with a plan and a feeling of lightness. I went to that appointment and made another.
A year ago, I thought I would blog frequently and create a record of life in this terrible situation, but what I did not expect was the everyday horror, the exhaustion, the new and different ways we could be alienated from the people around us, the refusal of our cohort to accept responsibility for their part in keeping us all alive. I am still not sure how to deal with people who refuse to mask up or get vaccinated, but I will tell you one thing: I’m keeping a shopping cart between me and them, and I’m watching out for their split ends.
A couple of weeks ago, Sweetpea had what I characterized at the time as “a poopsplosion.” In my defense, I found myself standing in the middle of a floor peppered with little dabs of liquid cat poop, and that was before the sudden spray of cat yak, when I surrendered, mopped up various bodily fluids and prostrated myself before the veterinarian. The vet gave her a shot and essentially said, “Poop happens.” Life went on until this morning, when symptoms returned. Sweetpea was in a cat carrier and waiting for the vet by 10:30, which made today a nail-biter. In the COVID environment, I have to drop off my cats and can’t comfort them, for which I will never forgive no-mask-wearing assholes.
Turns out Sweetpea needed an enema. I’ve never typed those words in that order before, so that’s exciting. The vet explained all sorts of things to me, like that after an enema, cats leak liquids and it can make a big mess and nobody wants that! I laughed nervously about everything I’d mopped up this morning, and said something stupid like, “Not this cowgirl!” Under no circumstances am I a cowgirl. Every boot I have is rubber.
New parents of infants spend lots of time discussing poop. It goes with the territory and often comes as a surprise to adults who, mere months before, discussed current events, interest rates and movie times. But no. New parents will discuss the contents of a full diaper like they’re making lists for the auto parts store. My daughter Miss Sasha is nearly forty and has two children, so it’s been a long time since I discussed poop with anyone as I now find myself doing with the vet. He’s a lot better adjusted about this than I am. Maybe he has young grandchildren and changes their diapers.
Happy New Year! Every year, Pete and I celebrate by going for a walk with our cameras. Sure, it’s sedate, but this year, going for a walk may turn super exciting due to encounters with no-mask-wearing assholes. Yes, they’re jogging through the park, sometimes running the wrong way on the bike path, huffing and puffing where other no-mask-wearing assholes will suck up their used air in a minute. When you see three or four of these jerks in a row, it makes you get off the path and stick by the road, where the worst thing your lungs suck up is carcinogenic traffic fumes.
We didn’t so much flee the park near our house as change course abruptly to cross a parking lot and skirt the pond full of seagulls and ducks. This is the New Jersey version of a bucolic scene, so I was fully surprised when this big blue heron cleared its throat and announced that we were seeing some NATURE. You remember NATURE. I’ve seen a lot of it on TV since March, but anyway, we were looking at little brown ducks when this giant blue bird we hadn’t seen a second before took off out of the water and landed on the distant bank. Hello!
I’m not saying my icy heart melted, but it was sufficiently warmed that the next maskless assholes didn’t inspire me think the murdery thoughts. Here at home, Pete is brewing beer. The cats snore on the couch. Pete found a $10 bill on Drusy’s grave so DrusyClaus is still bringing us presents. Happy New Year to you, whoever and wherever you are. Mask up when you go out. I hope you see blue birds.
For months now, I’ve spent an hour or two hours on Saturdays writing or drawing, then mailing my little objets to about 20 puzzled friends and family members. Some of these objets are more obviously one thing or another. For instance, when I took apart a cheese cookbook and colored in the pictures, I was obviously commenting on inappropriate relationships between mildew and marking pens. STOP LAUGHING. Anyhoo, my aunt, who is amazed by every foolish thing I do, called my bluff by cutting up a square calendar image and mailing it to me without the first hint of what picture I should be reconstructing. I was intrigued! Individual pieces, I could kind of begin to piece together, but but but – for days, I couldn’t figure it out. I almost gave up! But I gave it one more try and realized I was looking at the frame all wrong, and then it came together. In that moment, I wondered why we weren’t mailing each other puzzles all along.
A zillion years ago, we used to mail each other letters, perhaps even before you were born. I was a maniac with stamps from the beginning. In second grade, I mailed fun size chocolate bars to my best friend and learned not everything that fit into an envelope should. But you know: I keep trying.
You have friends and you know where they live. Mail them letters. Mail them calendar puzzles. Send them cards and pictures from when you were both 8. Today, I mailed out pages of My Weekly Reader from the years I was in first and second grade. My mother had saved them – for some reason. But there’s no reason to have them now, which is why it’s funny and unexpected. Now that’s in the ether, even if/when the pages go into the round file. What matters is the thought, the idea, the proof that you care.
Buy some stamps. Reach out. Send something stupid because it’s funny.
It has taken me weeks to be able to say this: we lost Drusy. This is the last picture I took of her. I’d made an appointment to take her to the vet, and had the presence of mind to realize I didn’t want to forget even this moment, in which she appeared disappointed I hadn’t filled her water bowl in some singular way.
Over the summer and even on the hottest days, Drusy responded to my being home all the time by occupying my lap whenever I sat down. It became a problem while I was working because typing around a cat, no matter how tiny, is still difficult. And Drusy was tiny. Pete and I laughed all along about the special gravity exerted by this giant personality as finding ourselves “trapped under the 6 lb. cat.” In the last year, she was closer to 5 lbs., and toward the end, barely that. The day I took her to the vet in September, he called me with shock in his voice, saying she’d lost almost 5 lbs. I knew she was very thin, because the day before, she lay on my chest and there was very little pressure against my ribs. He laid out a grim scenario: she had a mass on her intestine. There were few options: surgery or putting her to sleep. I wanted him to try to save her, so he did the surgery. She was with him a few days post-surgery. On Saturday afternoon, September 12th, I felt suddenly hot, then cold, and I knew it was over. Saturday evening, the vet called to say Drusy had died.
It was too painful to contemplate never seeing her again. Because of COVID, I hadn’t been able to visit her in the hospital, to hold and comfort her, to assure her I hadn’t given her away. The pain of this even now stings, but for the days she was in the hospital, I felt like I’d grabbed a live wire and couldn’t think clearly. Instinct took over. When the vet told me she’d died, I told him we would collect her body the next morning, which we did. Very early Sunday morning, Pete and I dug a hole. I’m sure the neighbors are still talking about it. When we got home, I took her body out of the cat carrier and held her in my arms, wrapped in a towel. Her fur was soft; her body limp. It’s irrational, but I had to do this to know she was gone. I placed her carefully in the hole. As the vet suggested, we drenched another towel in ammonia to prevent predation, and covered her body with soil, a ceramic marker and, later, a perennial aster in a planter. This is just the end of one story. Every day, I make a reason to walk past that spot and murmur, “I love you, Drusy. Love you, love you.”
For all of her life, these things were true: Drusy was the Queen of Our House, demander of adoration, graceful recipient of it. While the other cats scattered, Drusy greeted every visitor with a cautious sniff, offering the chance to admire her properly. I would say, “Cats, your friend _____ is coming over,” and only Drusy believed me.
Drusy was utterly quirky. She loved crunchy paper, so Christmas was somewhat about the gifts but a lot about Drusy savoring the noise and sensation of walking slowly, over and over, across a floor littered with wrapping paper. When she was young and we still kept the bedroom door open all the time, we would come to bed and find Drusy had left us the gift of a tiny finger puppet. We called her “DrusyClaus.” She did this for years. She would do little backflips. None of the other cats ever did backflips. And she would do them only in this one spot where I could see her do it. During the summers, she would lie in a doorway on her back with her paws in the air. Only one of the other cats every did this, and I think that cat learned from Drusy that our hearts melted each time we saw that.
Most black cats, like Topaz, are a mix of brown and black. For most of her life, Drusy had black fur and jewel-like green eyes. I am not enough of a photographer to convey her true beauty, which has always been a trial for me. She also did quirky things I would never have been able to photograph. After our first housemate moved out, Pete prepped and painted the bedroom. While the door was open, Drusy would sit in the middle of the room and sing. She liked the sound of her voice echoing through the room. When the room was rented, Drusy didn’t give up on her singing career. She would sit at the top of the stairs, sing like a tween with karaoke stars in her eyes, then race down the stairs to ask us if we’d heard her sing. Did we? Did we? We did! We did!
I want to remember everything about her. Drusy and Topaz came to me at a time when my heart was battered and exhausted, and Drusy in particular helped me put myself back together. She demanded up close and personally that I love her. For example:
In the beginning, before Topaz and Drusy had names, I called them Thing 1 and Thing 2. Drusy, who was always front and center, was of course Thing 1:
Thing 1 is affectionate and loves me openly. She walks around my head while I’m writing, settling across my chest, where we sit nose to nose and she turns into the sweetest, purringest Princess Kissyface and my icy heart melts and she lies against me like a tiny five-pound baby and I have to muh-muh-muh kiss her nose and forehead and because I hate cute I could just KILL MYSELF. I feel pretty confident that Thing 1 would be okay going to the vet’s office with me, and if she were frightened, she could sit on my chest and we could have a talk about boys in her French class.
Here in the present tense, I’ve seen her twice since she left us, both on the same day. I didn’t think I saw a black cat. I saw Drusy. She was so much tinier than most cats there was no mistaking Drusy for anyone else. She ran into rooms like a ballerina runs on toe shoes, only to survey the room. She would climb onto Pete’s and my chests when we were sitting on the couch and gaze into our eyes. Drusy demanded and received undivided attention, her arms around our necks. She did such odd and unusual things from the beginning that both Pete and I asked her, in sometimes awestruck tones, “Who are you really?”
When Pete and I drove to the vet’s office to pick up Drusy’s body, it was a test of our courage. Neither of us was ready for that. Drusy was a once in a lifetime cat for both of us. Even so: there were important things to remember. The vet was in tears when he delivered the cat carrier containing her body to our car. We were crying, too, but that’s not the end of the story. I said, “Years ago, you told me Drusy might have a heart condition and we might only have a short time with her. I guessed we might have three to five years with her. Everything after that was bonus time. We had thirteen good years together.”
He said, “I have never been so happy to be wrong.”