The following essays were conceived and written by students in Steve Rubin’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute workshop this past June entitled “Writing Your Pandemic Memoir.” The class was conducted virtually via Zoom. Students were requested to write a short (750-1,000 words) personal essay on their COVID-19 experience. They were asked to consider how their lives had changed, how they were able to cope with a new reality, and what “guilty pleasures,” if any, they might have encountered during the lockdown.
Steve Rubin, a retired professor and college dean, regularly teaches classes for Berkshire OLLI. He divides his time between Tyringham, Massachusetts, and Greenwich, Connecticut.
To read the first set of “Pandemic Memoirs” click HERE.
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Guilty Pleasures: A Pandemic Memoir
By Donna Conforti
These are precious moments we never knew we could have: every night, after our work, we meet in the kitchen and we sing (usually to the “Grateful Dead”), we dance as we cook, we tease each other and poke fun, and we hug . . . just because. We ask each other questions, big questions: about world events, spirituality, human nature, Mother Nature, and the futures we imagine. We ask small ones too, like who’s cooking and when: we turn out 90 meals a week now that our boys are back in our Berkshires nest.
All three are safe and with us, arriving over many weeks from Los Angeles, West Virginia, and Brooklyn. With wings wide open to receive them, I’m bursting with a joy only mothers know. Best to tuck it in, though, keep it to a whisper. People are dying, and I’m guilty for my pleasure
The bright brilliant sun surges from the pink and green clutches of its morning’s rise. It’s 6 a.m., and she fills her beak with string, straw and other scraps. Robin, our new lady of the house, feathers her nest. Her male waits near, singing sweetly to her as she weaves her fibers and settles in. The lake seems still, though it never really is; duck pairs make way for their young. Two black birds flash me their red wings as nature takes me on a tour of spring’s firsts.
A chirping phone pierces my stillness. It’s the hospital. Dad’s not getting better.
If I go, I can’t see him for fourteen days. Does he even have fourteen days? And what about my own risks: airports, taxis, brushing up against feckless spring-break beach-goers who still think this is just like the flu. I’ve been so careful to this point, but . . . he’s dying. With a torn and heavy heart, I stay and take care things from here.
The fog over the lake stretches its thick, heavy reach to blanket my tearing eyes. I can’t see what’s on the other side. Days are linked, none distinguished. Evening calls to mom, with news like this or just to chat, bring something predictable to my wobbly world.
Forty in the family came to his Zoom funeral, ten were by his side. I should have been one of the ten, his daughter, his beautiful baby, as he called me, even though I was born first. And he should have been there for me, and mom, all these years. I’m chased by “if-onlys.”
Sorry for your loss, people say. Thank you, I reply, wondering if I’m sad that I lost him, or that I lost the chance to ever really have him?
Dependably late for our Monday dad-daughter dinners, I pace in the lobby, singing he’ll be comin’ round the mountain when he comes, as other little girls clear their plates and get ready for bath and books with mom AND dad. “Hi my beautiful baby! I got stuck at the shop.”
Monday after Monday, we’d sit next to each other, our pasta dishes closer than we were. Fathering did not come naturally to my dad, but as I grew taller, he grew more able.
Gabe’s were the last words dad heard on the phone and the first arms around me when dad died. Having Gabe with us was an unusual pleasure. We’d grown reluctantly accustomed to seeing him only on occasion (he hated it as much as we), as the demands of his start-up determined his days. But for now, for these few moments at least, we have him all to our hungry selves. I’m fattened by the sweetness of his presence.
NPR tells stories of front-line workers hurting all over from daily duels with death. Revealing their mask-scarred faces and bulging bloodshot eyes, they’re met each night with howls and drum beats from NYC fans and defiance from those elsewhere who feel their liberties have been robbed. My pleasure is pierced.
Zach pulls in and we race to the car for a hug, a real hug, not like the ones on Zoom—the hugs we hated growing used to. He drove ten straight hours, stopping only to fill and empty his tanks; he sneaks up and pounces on an unaware Gabe, and wrestles him to the grass. My man-cubs paw at each other, squealing as they tumble.
Robin, with finesse and singular attention, cinches her nest and settles in for the days ahead. She knows the job she has to do. Careful not to startle our lady in waiting, we change how we go in and out of the house, whisper as we pass, and gently guide all doors closed.
After two months of isolation, eating kale and lentils in his room, and 3,000 miles flying beside wary passengers sanitizing every surface and themselves, Max returns to us. We welcome him. . . from a social distance. Within our reach, but not our touch, it took fourteen more days to find out Max was more bones than beef. Kale and lentils will do that to you.
It’s Mothers’ Day, first one in over 10 years with all my boys together. First one, ever, sending my mom love from the screen. We let our boys get ahead on the Gould Farm hike. Paul and I holding hands, as we follow; none of them is the leader. Shoulder to shoulder, they playfully make their way through the Berkshire woods: handstands, martial arts, back cracks. Thank you, thank you, thank you! With a circular sweep of our arms, we chant our gratitude to the universe. This was the first of the Berkshire brother walks, where they share their souls’ secrets and tighten the knots. We breathe in our guilty pleasure.
The winds can really pick up here in the mountains. Our recycled boxes flap and toss around under Robin’s nest. She shrieks. And as she turns suddenly, without intention, her tail tips her nest. The blue beauties tumble out and fall, cracked and yellowed, on the wooded deck.
How do I warn her, prepare her for what’s next: a ransacked cradle, her chicks never knowing the gift of her devotion.
She returns, confused. She flutters erratically around her once-nested site before she stops to rest on our roof. She glimpses her male in nearby oak. With her beak tilted upward and toward him, she lifts her tail and flies off to do it all over again.
First-time author, Donna Conforti, spends her time in the Berkshires and in New Jersey, everyday falling more in love with the Berkshires!
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By Wayne Bizer
I am a prisoner in my castle with the girl of my dreams. I still remember when I first fantasized sharing my life and my bedroom with her. That was more than 60 years ago. Sometimes dreams do come true.
I depended on her for so much those days. I fought the battles outside the walls while she made the music that raised the children and won the important wars. These are the wars we still celebrate. She was there for them in all the seasons. My mind was on the climb. The old photos look so different to me now. I search for my image, but the photos tell no lies.
Yesterday became today in a flash of news and tomorrow cannot be seen. They warn COVID lurks everywhere and waits for a single mistake. We erased our plans of travel and adventure and now cling to the safety of our walls. We do battle with our fears. Now it is my turn to win the wars for her.
She sleeps now, the girl of my dreams. She sleeps a lot these days. Cancer can do that. We are grateful that the cancer also sleeps. Next week we go for her monthly medicine that sedates the monster that has never been killed.
She always changes in the days before her infusion. Perhaps that’s why she sleeps now. I am her cheerleader and I try to lift her spirits. We shout to the world, “let’s kill some cancer today.” A few days after her treatment she comes home from the place where her fears live and then her music once again fills our lives. We dance like the old days.
COVID keeps our children and grandchildren away. We dream of being together again. Amy graduates from 8th grade this afternoon. We hope to see her speech on the screen. We try to “Zoom” all of them into our lives as often as they allow. Sometimes the Zoom relieves the pain and sometimes it makes the pain much worse. Our hearts ache as we silently wonder if we will live long enough to hold them in our arms again.
She depends on me a lot these days. She can do most things for herself, but some important ones have lost their way. Each day can bring different needs.
Yesterday I was a doctor. This morning I was the garbage man. Today I will be the laundry man, the house cleaner, the grocery shopper, and the social secretary. Tonight I will be the admiral of the microwaves and then will struggle to pilot the remote to land in happy places.
I spend my free time writing my story, searching for the footprints of my ancestors, and trying to learn about things I was too busy to value. My mind still grows, but sometimes it stumbles when I reach out for a special noun. Why is it always the nouns? I never falter for a verb. Maybe they’ll find a cure for that.
New fears come to me as my body changes. My shoulders have pained me for months. The cortisone injections helped until they didn’t. My hip and my leg muscles tell lies about my age. I long for a pain free sleep, interrupted only by the universal call to pee in the night. Now they speak of a disease no one can pronounce. They tested my blood today. Now I must wait.
We held each other tightly and cried the last time we spoke about what would happen to her if something happened to me. We both know she could not live in our castle alone. Our children have busy lives far away. She knows no one in either of those lands. Her friends are here. Moving into a communal home has great danger. I tried to imagine life without her, but my mind defied me and would not open that door.
The darkness lifts and a new days begins. I man the battlements of our castle and defend our walls from an enemy too small to be seen. Together we mark the months, celebrate the days, battle the cancer, hide from the virus, and find the sunshine in each day.
I must go now, I think the girl of my dreams is awakening from her dreams. Don’t you hear the music? I’m sure she is in need of my kiss. Today is another precious honeymoon day together. Today is my treasure.
Wayne Bizer is a retired ophthalmologist, presently living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who wishes he and his wife were back in the Berkshires on the lawn at Tanglewood with the BSO.