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Death and Life in the Time of the Pandemic

Every family has its stories these days, the ways in which the Pandemic has become the dark and overwhelming backdrop against which life's major events must be played.  This is mine.


My 93-year-old mother passed away in May.  No, she did not die of Covid-19, but as with so many others in assisted living communities, the forced isolation clearly accelerated her mental and physical decline.  Introverts such as myself seem to be having an easier  time of staying home, but my mother, Marolyn Schumacher Welch Tarrant, was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum for needing to have others surrounding her, and isolation for her was basically a death sentence.  The longer  the need for social distancing continues, the more I'm glad she escaped early on.


Mom was famous for her love of throwing parties.  We're not talking fancy charity bashes to make the society pages; she just enjoyed getting people together.  Her annual neighborhood potlucks were legendary, and when she finally wrapped up decades of this hostessing gig, the local paper carried a big write-up.  I knew this about her, but it wasn't until I was sorting through old photo albums after her death that the theme of her lifelong love of parties really hit me.  Most striking was a group shot of a First Anniversary party she threw with a dozen friends in attendance.  Who does that for a wedding anniversary?  Well, my mother, of course—a  person for whom anything and everything was always an  excuse for a party.  I wonder how my father felt about this.  I sincerely hope he got his private party later!   


With a lifetime of successful party production behind her, it's no surprise mom wanted her memorial service to be party-like.  Upbeat, she said, with a Dixieland jazz band.  Well, as everyone who's lost a loved one in the past six months knows, the pandemic has changed everything.  For everybody.  Any kind of a service is tough to manage, a festive reception even harder.


I think my mother would have understood this, though.  One of her favorite sayings, which she stamped on the envelope of every card she mailed, was this:  We cannot change the course of the winds, but we can adjust our sails. Her other favorite advice was to try to make things fun.  Lemons?  Make lemonade. The fact that her parents always promised an ice cream cone following a trip to the doctor's for a shot made a big impression on her. She repeated that story to me many times, and never stopped priding herself on finding the potential ice cream cone in any less-than-wonderful situation.


She was only 19 when she married my father in 1946, the year half the young men in America came home from World War II to start the Baby Boom.  My parents had courted against the backdrop of war, with my mother planning the Corvallis High School dances, all carefully scheduled, she always told me, to coincide with my father's leaves.  Thanks to all manufacturing production going to the war effort and the sudden demand for wedding dresses that year, pickings were slim, and my mother always said she hated the one she had to settle for, claiming it was literally the only one available.


That poor, loathed dress had been in my cedar trunk for decades, and one day in the early months of our Pandemic lockdown, I was hit with an inspiration.  The pale blue Elsa dress I had made for my two-year-old granddaughter  out of her mother's  one prom gown had apparently been a hit, judging from the snips of video which were all I had to go by, given the limits of visiting during the lockdown.  Why not try the same with the wedding dress ?


I soon made the thrilling discovery that while the blue dress was the iconic gown for little girls wanting to belt out "Let It Go!" from Frozen, the sequel featured Elsa  wearing a dazzling white transformational dress  as she sings "Show Yourself!" So the "Spirit Dress" was actually a thing!  Mothers  were sewing these.  Companies were producing various versions. If you were rich but lacking imagination or creative ability, somebody on Etsy would  gladly sew one for your granddaughter for only  $400!


Well, count me in. I got busy. Send for the sequins, call in the Swarovski crystals, the silver piping, the glue-on jewels.  Make it a fun Pandemic Challenge Game by paying $8 for a 75 cent zipper just to stay home  from the fabric store.  The long net train on my mother's gown was perfect for Elsa's "sleeves," which is what they were calling the divided cape affair so crucial to this ensemble.  I painstakingly took my mother's wedding gown apart, handwashed each piece, recut Size 3 pieces from a vintage flower-girl dress pattern.  Then, day after day,  I sat and sewed on tiny beads, including a few from my husband's great-grandmother's handed-down collection, embellishments carefully snipped and saved from the fanciest dresses and now, after a hundred years, soon to once more sparkle in the light of day.


Hearing of my project, a friend commented she would not have the patience for this.  But patience had nothing to do with it!  This was fun. This was therapy.  I loved the personal nature of the transactions on Etsy and the idea these little businesses were out there shipping product to America's crafters.  Shout-out to SilverMoonMontana!  I felt a kinship with women around the country were quietly endeavoring to keep their sanity by sewing, quilting, knitting, beading, whatever came to hand. There was also, I must admit, however, a manic edge to my pursuit, as if I thought in adding bead after bead I could somehow solve the overwhelming problems of the world itself if only I could pull off this one small project to perfection.


My husband and I were in the tightest possible quarantine at this time, trying to keep Wake Robin Farm a safe haven for this granddaughter during the time her sister was being born in Portland. We couldn't wait to have this little girl here with us, and I was hoping the dress would provide a great distraction for any first-child-gets-set-aside angst.


But I was also working hard at tempering my expectations.  I knew the making of the dress was my therapy and it wasn't fair trying to dictate my granddaughter's reaction to it.  I believe most of us mothers goodheartedly set out to be the mothers to our daughters that we wanted, so I knew I was actually making this dress for the little girl I used to be, the child who still remembers the stabbing envy I felt when five-year-old Susie Cornell showed up at a costume party in a bride dress her grandmother made for her. Why wasn't anybody making a bride dress for me?


So imagine my delight when my granddaughter, incredibly talkative (Can't imagine where she got that!), started bonding to this dress while we were still driving her home to Wake Robin Farm on I-5. "You made a dress for me, Grammie?  And it's hanging right there for me when we get to the farm? Can I put it on before I do anything else?"


Yes! Absolutely! And that's what she did. Put it on and ever after had to be persuaded out of it. Danced and twirled, fascinated by the way the crystals caught the light and threw off bouncing reflections on the walls. I couldn't believe the huge emotional payoff as I watched her run barefoot across the sun-dappled backyard lawn, repeatedly imitating Elsa's two-footed stick-landing jump into the center of the spirit medallion to the powerful voice of Idina Menzel pouring out those lyrics.  Are you the one I've been waiting for all of my life……?   


Um, actually, yes!  Since you put it that way, yes, it sure looks like you are!


I am still watching the videos  I made, still stunned by  the privilege of having this adorable child here, running around our house and yard as if a beautiful doll had come to radiant life. After all these weeks of not being able to touch other human beings, to have this child curled in my arms as we watched the thrilling but non-scary parts of the Frozen movies was absolutely delicious. And so healing.  I could feel the flow of the cuddling hormone, oxcytocin, as she nestled close.


Now she's back home, learning to be a big sister, reportedly wearing the dress out for walks along the suburban streets of Portland which, no, is not a city entirely on fire or filled with tear gas as news clips might make you think.  


My mother had blue eyes and curly blond hair, just like her great-granddaughter.  I think she'd have gotten a big kick out of this child sashaying along in the spiffed-up wedding gown she herself had never liked, eliciting smiles from folks who look up from their frontyard gardens at this little person passing in her spangly finery, trailing her gown, singing her own song.


I hope so, Mom, because in the Time of the Pandemic, this seemed like the best I could do. And I promise, just like you would have wanted, we had fun.



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Mary Trump Speaks Up

Apparently many people are finding solace in reading books during the pandemic, and I certainly expected to.  When Oregon locked down in March, we bought a stack of hardbacks at our local independent, Grassroots Books, and while my husband has been through a dozen, I have been embarrassed that I just recently finished my first. I felt better when a dear friend, gobbling a book a day in a small room in San Francisco, pointed out that, here at Wake Robin Farm, I have no need to escape. And she's right.  Rather than seeking distraction, this beautiful time of the year here makes it easy to try for the living-in-the-moment thing.


While America's on fire with the virus and violence, and all around people are suffering, I'm feeling oddly optimistic. Surely we will be rid of Donald Trump shortly and can begin to build the better world we all want. I've read Fear, by Bob Woodward and one of the other more forgettable Trump titles, and when I heard Mary Trump was publishing her story, I was thinking I shouldn't waste another minute of my precious time letting this odious man occupy my brain space.


But then I saw the picture of Mary. Brown-haired—not blond or orange. Steely blue eyes. Serious looking. And hey, her name's Mary, the favorite name I gave my daughter.  And her mother—another persona non grata with the Trumps—is Linda.  And she has a PhD. in Psychology. I decided to read the book to honor her. If someone is bravely willing to speak up, I will listen. Exciting, knowing that as the book was downloading onto my Kindle in the wee hours of the July 14th publication day, it was doing the same in tens of thousands of other Kindles across the country.


Of course nobody has to read any of these books to hear the most salacious details. The press will help out with that. Everybody's heard by now, for example, that Trump paid somebody else to take his SATs. Big surprise.  But what Mary's book does that none of these other accomplish is to explain why this man is the way he is, how all his worst traits are so deeply embedded in him by birth and upbringing. For over three years now we've had to hear the talking heads repeatedly pleading for Trump to express more empathy, not be so tone deaf, just be honest about the pandemic and tell people to wear masks etc. It wouldn't take that much, they'd argue, for him to rise to his position as president. For myself, I've never been able to understand how anybody could hold out the slightest hope he would change. He can't say the right thing because he doesn't think the right thing.  He doesn't feel the right thing.  Mary Trump explains the hopelessness of imagining he will ever be any different.  She lays him bare, and calls out all the enablers who have helped make this reign of terror possible.


For people like me who are more interested in family dynamics than politics, Too Much and Never Enough makes a fascinating read. Sure, people will always be quick to say Trump's niece just wanted to make money writing a book. As if  anyone can write a book. (Trump can't. Never wrote any of his own.) Donald-like, they'll call her a little ingrate who already got plenty of money from being a Trump. But it's clear to me it's not about the money. It's  about being  a member of a patriarchal family where women are told to sit down and shut up and finally deciding you won't. I find her act of defiance in publishing this book thrilling. And Trump is already living up to his billing as a bully, dishing out the childish taunts: "She wasn't a family favorite. She was a mess. Our parents couldn't stand her etc."  In other words, get busy cowering because we will continue to shun you.


I loved Mary Trump's interview retort, that since Trump also called Nancy Pelosi a mess, she figured she's in good company. You are, Mary. So thanks for speaking up. Thanks for putting the good of the country over some sick notion of family loyalty.  Thanks for doing the right thing.


Which reminds me of words of comfort I've recently encountered from an unexpected source. Like most little girls in the country, my granddaughter is smitten with all things Frozen, and I've been listening to the soundtrack in order to be up to speed when she visits soon. These lines by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez were written pre-pandemic, but seem hauntingly appropriate to one of the current prevailing moods in the country:


I won't look too far ahead
It's too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I'll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing

And, with it done, what comes then?
When it's clear that everything will never be the same again
Then I'll make the choice to hear that voice
And do the next right thing


I wonder if any Republicans have little girls or granddaughters playing this music. If so, pay attention! Read Mary Trump's book. Believe her honest words. Face that you have shackled yourself to a fake sort of human being and forced us to bear the weight of his presidency. Nothing can be done to change Donald Trump, but is there any hope for you?  Just stop enabling Donald Trump--maybe the biggest mistake of your life--and do the next right thing. 


Of course, at this point, having passed up the chance to vote for his impeachment or ever stand up to this big baby of a tyrant in any way, all that may be left to you as the next right thing is to make a flying rat-leap off this sinking ship. 


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