Surviving the quarantine while keeping your sanity
“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” — Anne Frank.
To me, personally, it is not easy to see beauty where there is misery. I tend to focus on the misery. Although I challenge that — it is a daily exercise. We are living in times of uncertainty. Worldwide. Uncertainty, according to Wikipedia, refers to “epistemic situations involving imperfect or unknown information. It applies to predictions of future events, to physical measurements that are already made, or to the unknown.” In America, especially in my home state of Florida, uncertainty is hitting hard.
The state has a population of almost twenty-two million people. Demographically, it is seventy-five percent white, seventy percent Christian and, almost eighty percent speak mainly English. Fifty-one percent are women. Roughly fifty-five percent of Floridians are under fifty-five years old. Therefore, forty-five percent are over fifty-five. Thirty-seven percent are Democrats, thirty-five percent Republicans, everybody else still trying to figure it out. I blend in easily: white, grew up Christian, speak mainly English, woman, under fifty-five, registered Democrat.
Florida is the sunshine state, with roughly two hundred and thirty days of sunshine a year. Sunshine exposure increases serotonin production, decreases melatonin levels, and lifts our spirits. Sunlight can also help ease the symptoms of clinical depression, and hormone-related imbalances — that is the science behind sunlight and good mood. And, good mood can go a long way when it comes to focusing on beauty as opposed to misery. What I like the most about living here is precisely the sunlight and the beaches. Residing walking distance to the ocean gives me a sense of calm.
Hobbies such as painting, reading, or hanging out with friends can help manage stress. To me, finding balance equals looking at the ocean. Ideally, I will bring a towel and get a tan in the sun. Realistically, being a mother of two kids under nine years old means beach trips are babysitting gigs. I enjoy them, of course. I am not complaining. Although I am a little bummed about not going to the beach all this time. Nevertheless, it is my choice. Beaches were closed in my neighborhood due to COVID-19 precautions. They were re-opened a short few weeks later. As I write this piece, I am not even sure where that decision stands. It matters little — my decision to avoid potential crowds while pandemic numbers in my state are not decreasing is based on my gut feeling. It is my prerogative to trust it. I admit, my gut feeling believes in science but that’s beside the point.
At a recent Zoom meeting with a client, he asked me whether I have been to the beach lately. Living in New Jersey, he thought it is a shame I don’t just take advantage of being close to the ocean. And he gave me his friendly suggestion to “not worry, just go and enjoy.” I politely answered, “Maybe I will.” But that was just to end the conversation. He is well-meaning but this is not an opinion I need. I will stick with my instincts. When we ended our meeting, I closed my laptop, got up from my chair, and went to the kitchen to make my kids a snack so we could go eat at the porch. I took a moment to appreciate that, for the first time, the fact that I do not physically travel to my clients allows me to immediately get back to my personal life when I am done with work. When I am preparing my conferences or writing, I can work for hours at a time but still take as many breaks as I need to take care of people I love. I enjoy my kids’ random hugs and unscheduled storytime. I don’t keep a military structure around me. As long as they are fed and well-rested, I take it easy. Video games? Ok, but in moderation. I’ll even play a little.
No travel for me means more time spent with the people I love. Not just at home around my kids but virtually via FaceTime with my sister in Brazil or WhatsApp with my best friends in Finland and Germany. I am somewhat more connected with friends I have not seen in person for years than probably ever before. Technology does not seem to be such a complicated monster anymore but rather, a convenient savior. Folks who avoided it and valued in-person connections exclusively are now learning to focus on the beauty of virtual meetings versus the misery technology used to mean when we could safely be outside and travel.
Tuulia Myrsky is one of my best friends in the world. She lives in Finland, which seems nice right now. I would teletransport to Finland if I could, until the end of this pandemic. Have you ever met a Finn? They have no stress — I believe they don’t even know what the word means. Tuulia is about ten years younger than I am. When she was very young, maybe twenty years old, she was having an acne breakout one time. We were chatting and she was annoyed by the zits on her face, which I used to have when I was her age. So I suggested, “You should eat carrots. They are great to clear your skin.” She replied, “Thank you but I am skeptical.” “Be skeptical. But eat the carrots,” I insisted. She found that funny and said, “Ok, I will grab some carrots next time I go to the store.” About a week later Tuulia called me to say, “It worked! The carrots cleared my skin! Or, maybe it’s just a coincidence but I had to tell you.” I said, “Sure, it was probably just a coincidence. Keep being skeptical but, from now on, eat carrots. If you stop eating them and have another acne breakout, go get them at the store again, and just eat them. Coincidentally or not, your skin will clear up.”
I don’t know much but I do know this: science works. One needs not being a scientist to learn that the miracle carrots perform on the skin is a result of a powerful combination: vitamin C’s healing properties that speed up skin recovery from external wounds, and beta-carotene’s anti-inflammatory power, which aids the whole process. You may be skeptical, but it works. It’s just science. It seems pertinent to mention in this story that Tuulia went on to have a career in alternative medicine. When I learned about it, I inquired her whether the carrots episode played a part in her decision to pursue a type of medicine so many people are skeptical about. She barely remembered our conversations from over a decade ago and considered her natural remedies passion to be, well, a coincidence.
Quarantined, working from home since March when my kids’ school shut down, so far we seem to be Coronavirus-free. Their overnight switch to distance learning was a little clumsy but not too bad, thanks to the ever miracle workers, the teachers. Currently, on their summer break, our hunkered-down state feels so long-lasting that sometimes I wonder whether I can still drive — I can. In fact, I drove once a few weeks ago, to West Kendall, for a laptop repair — technology is great but sometimes it lets you down in the most inconvenient times. A far drive from Miami Beach, where I live, that was the only repair shop I found on Yelp that seemed to have in stock a part my device needed. So, off I went to the wild wild west of Miami, where the malls are full, half the people wear a mask and the other half wears… an attitude about masks.
Upon arrival at the repair shop, I immediately noticed three of the people working wearing a mask and another three with their faces fully exposed. Among the mask-wearing people, only one of the two owners. It felt very much like a snapshot of Florida elections: fifty-fifty, both sides trying to make a point. I seemed to be the only walk-in client, compliantly masked. As Neo starting assessing my laptop, a very nice — also masked — lady walks in. “I will wait,” she told Neo when she noticed her favorite repair guy busy helping me.
She sat down and the unmasked business owner started small talking: “I remember you from before. You are an English teacher, correct?” “English and Spanish,” she replied. Because I admire teachers a great deal, I decided to keep eavesdropping on their conversation while my computer was being diagnosed. I heard her say she does not watch the news anymore. “It’s too sad.” He somewhat agreed, “Don’t watch it. Too much fake news,” which prompted her to ask, “Is that why you do not wear a mask? Do you think Coronavirus is fake news?” “I think it is a conspiracy to hurt the economy,” he offered. In true educator fashion, she engaged, “A conspiracy? By whom? Russia? China? Democrats?” Although the best part of that conversation seemed to be building up and I was curious, I missed whatever they said next because I had my estimate ready to be read and signed, which took my attention away. I picked their conversation back up when she was telling him, “It saddens me that you young people do not wear a mask.”
At that moment, I felt a little embarrassed for him and glad I was wearing my mask. The conspiracy talk did not conclude by the time she was called up by Neo and I was ready to leave. The unmasked businessman seemed unfazed. I walked out feeling a little sad, wishing I had said something to him. “You should wear a mask. Despite your belief, this is a conspiracy, if it makes a customer, a teacher, and senior citizen, feel safer, why not?” But I said nothing. Four weeks went by so far and my laptop, which was promised to be a three-day repair job, is still pending — they are begging for a bad Yelp review. While I wait, I debate with myself whether or not I should say something next time, from a customer to a business owner, about masks, and the pandemic. I just want to make sure they fix my computer first. Then, I shall say, “Be skeptical. Still, eat your carrots. I mean, wear your mask. It may be a coincidence but you will likely make your customers glad.”
America is weird
America is weird, no offense. I grew up in Brazil. Brazil is not doing better than the US in controlling the pandemic. Not at all. But the people? They are not protesting safety measures. That is just weird. Erno Harzem, the former Brazilian health minister who was recently ousted by President Bolsonaro said, “The pandemic has similarities with war. It produces the loss of lives, suffering, economic and organizational impact, fear, panic, insecurity.”
The loss of lives, suffering, fear, panic, insecurity — in Brazil. Here in America, I would like to add, it also generates heated arguments about Constitutional rights. Brazilians do not argue about the Constitution in the supermarket. They could not care less about their rights when it comes to covering your nose amid a declared pandemic. They are fresh into a Democracy that is barely making into its third decade and not even sure it is going to last. They have better concerns.
When I was born, Brazil was a dictatorship. Years prior, the military took over the government in a coup d’etat. In 1973, Emilio Garrastazu Medici was President. His authoritarian rule marked the apex of the totalitarian years. Medici’s regime spied on political opponents, many of whom were tortured and disappeared. Not just politicians: journalists, students, as young as of high school age, who dared to have an opinion and voice it where other people could hear and tell on them. According to historians, Medici represented the most rigidly authoritarian faction of the Brazilian military government, someone who was willing to stay in office for as long as deemed necessary to increase national power. Apologies for ruining your Carnaval plans for 2021.
In 1989 Brazilian citizens were allowed to vote for President again. The new Constitution had just been written. A great document, I must say, although imperfect. Like in most democracies, Brazilian politics can be messy. Yet, Brazilians vote, impeach, vote again and once again, impeach — as many times as politicians show corrupt behavior. Impeachment in Brazil is a process that removes you from power, which I think is great. Also, there is no Electoral College, which means, one person, one vote.
Establishing these differences and similarities between my countries help me educate my American raised friends on a few misperceptions they have about Brazilian politics. When they tell me “Americans are uneducated,” for example, I beg to differ. Americans can read and write. Seven percent of Brazilians over the age of fifteen are completely illiterate. That is 11.3 million people who cannot even write their names. And the reason why is because there is no school in their vicinity, or neighborhood, or town, or in the neighboring towns. No schools, and no library. That is how poor and underprivileged many South American communities are. For some, even clean water is a luxury. Wealth is concentrated heavily at the top and the people at the bottom, I am afraid, are far from reaching basic human dignity. When their children survive hunger, they may still die from drinking dirty water. Untreated, unfiltered, contaminated. Because cleaning water is not available to them.
When my father, who is a doctor, used to teach medicine at the Catholic University of Parana, he said, “I am not impressed when medical students can diagnose a rare form of a genetic disorder. Let me know if they can handle diarrhea in a household with seven children. Then I will hire them” Diarrhea, which causes rapid dehydration is a still a cause for high infant mortality in Brazilian poor and isolated areas. My father’s criticism was directed at the people hiring the medical staff of a few public hospitals. He questioned whether young doctors could handle a health crisis. He understood how medical students came typically from wealthy families- tuition is expensive. And those same students never personally faced the reality of unfiltered water and, well, diarrhea.
Americans are fine. We are not dying from diarrhea. We do not drink untreated water. There is a school in every town, and a library. And perhaps this is a little controversial to say but, I think many American adults are only “uneducated” when they chose to be. Information is available. Brazilians’ severely limited access to education still does not cause them to avoid catching a deadly virus however they can. Hence, they wear a mask. Perhaps because among other symptoms, COVID-19 may cause diarrhea. Diarrhea is not political and neither is COVID-19. Wearing a mask should not be political. I am trying to see the beauty where misery is. You know, like Americans see Brazil: a happy place, with happy people — and maybe you are right about that: it just depends on how you look at it.
Staying home is not stressful
Something else many Americans are struggling with is staying home. It can be hard. Not like “hiding from Nazis” but still not pleasant. It was a Jewish professor I follow on Twitter who came up with the analogy. He said something along these lines: “I can’t get over people complaining about staying home. Jewish people had to stay quiet all day in an attic, or a basement, or else they risked getting busted and dragged to a concentration camp. That is stressful. Staying home with your cat and take out? That is not stressful.” He made his point perfectly.
We miss social connections when we stay home. Anne Frank missed social connections. When she was in hiding, she looked forward to when helpers came by to drop off food and collect the trash. She had questions and more questions about them and about other people outside. She missed having contact with the ones outside and that was her way of handling it: talking to the helpers. She delighted in magazines brought to the Secret Annex by her friends Miep and Victor. She did not have today’s technological luxuries like FaceTime or Netflix. She had to stay in and wait.
Nothing properly replaces physical human interaction: hugs, kisses, eye to eye contact. But perhaps, this moment is teaching us that just because we cannot have the touch and physical presence of our friends and family, it does not mean we cannot be there for them in other ways, for as long as this crisis forces us apart. We are not hiding from Nazis, after all. Not today. Hopefully, never again. Right now, we can find ways to connect. We can adapt to this moment, under the gratitude that the small sacrifices we are making cannot be compared to the fate that our Jewish brothers and sisters were trying to escape when they could not go out. Do not think of all the misery, but of the beauty that remains around you. This is temporary. Isn’t everything? Is there a point in waiting for things to be normal again? Can we live under uncertainty for long periods, as some are predicting we might have to?
Some people deal with uncertainty better than others
Some people see a storm coming and put up the shutters. They check the pantry, the flashlights, they check on their neighbors. And some, just freeze. They don’t know what to do. Or rather, they don’t seem to be able to move at the ideal pace to keep up. They overthink, worry, get overwhelmed. Out of fear, insecurity, and even a little bit of resistance, denial. They would rather stay put and hold their breaths to see if maybe they are just having a bad dream. Anne Frank was of the first kind: she was well rounded, observing the people around her, their habits, their personality. She was wise and pragmatic. She had an acute sense of awareness despite being only thirteen when she moved into the Secret Annex with her parents, a second Jewish family, a family friend, and a cat.
From reading her journals, one easily notices that Anne Frank was not someone who could just wait. She was productive. She had her helper Miep sign up for courses so she could give Anne the materials to study every day with her sister Margot. She collected magazines and movie star photographs, and she wrote. Stories, poems, letters, feelings… They had a strict routine in there, perfectly timed around what the schedule was for the people who worked at the warehouse downstairs. The workers clocked in at 8:30 a.m. so the Annex woke up at 6 and took their turns showering and using the bathroom. Then, they had to go mute. Absolute silence until the workers had their lunch hour and they too could eat. Then, complete quietness again for a few more hours until the workers were gone for the day. But for Anne and her hiding mates, that was the best part of the day. They would sneak into the office right under the annex and listen to the radio. Anne Frank refused to concede. She made the best of her circumstances. They were temporary. Yet, she did not stay put, waiting for a better time. She lived every day to the fullest.
Anne Frank complained in her diary about the adults being lazy because they slept “all day.” It annoyed her. It also bothered her that adults would argue over things she considered petty. So she wrote — not because she was bored, but rather because she had ideas, dreams, plans. She was the glass half full kind of person. She knew she had a chance of making it out alive. And she made the best of it. She did not wait to see if she was going to make it. She planned for it. Not that she didn’t know it was a long shot. She probably worried while still keeping hope. Because she also wrote, “I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.” Perhaps, she wrote. Perhaps. That was cautious optimism. Perhaps she would be able to uphold her ideals in person, despite the uncertain times she had to get through first. And her ideals were so compelling that they are upheld to this day, via her now published books, which were saved by her friend Miep… books that help paint a picture of what life was like in hiding to so many Jews… although sadly, Anne herself didn’t make it through the war.
Things you can do
What can we do to make life a little more interesting when doing things we used to do may not be safe? What can we do to make life interesting, one day at a time, so we can make it through this pandemic? I have a few suggestions. But first, I want to quote Kristen Palmer’s play “Things You Can Do.”
“Things you can do… Bake cookies — healthy ones. No trans fats, whole grains, honey, no refined sugars. You can make lists. Carry a notebook. When you can’t keep track you can write down what bothers you. Contain it. You can create a schedule. Fill it in with places to be — with meaningful places. Work. Activities. Meetings. Anything to get out of the house. Anything to get your mind off it for an hour. For a second you can hold your breath. You can hold your heart still, let it pass, let it pass. You can get a routine. You can forget where you are. Forget what you are doing. You can do what everyone says and not ever think of what you want. You can tell your doctor that you cannot sleep and your doctor will prescribe something that no one should be ashamed of needing these days. Some help. Sometimes everyone needs a little help. You can continue. You can. And it will never be the same. You’ll adapt. Probably.”
I love this monologue from the character Clara. It is feminine — intelligent, sensitive, and relatable. Among things Clara plans to do, one is going to meaningful places. That is not a good suggestion for the current times — the play was written years before COVID-19 arrived. Right now, the only meaningful places to go if you are not medical staff are probably Walmart or Costco.
Just like Clara, we all have times when we don’t know what to do to get away from under that grey heavy cloud. “ Bake cookies,” she suggests. Baking is at an all-time high since staying at home orders first started a few months ago — it is hard to find yeast at the supermarket. She also talks about help. No one should be ashamed to ask for help, she pleads. That reminds me of my neighbor, a senior citizen who lives by herself and called my other neighbor, crying in Spanish about how she could not get her milk delivered. With hearing problems, she could not hear when the delivery person was buzzing her apartment. Once she asked for help, a plan was quickly figured out to make sure she gets her groceries.
Do not wait to call a neighbor or a friend when you need something. Ask for help. People need to get used to it. Asking for help, and helping. Let’s normalize those things. Clara also talks about another kind of help no one should be ashamed of asking for: mental health. Even if you never struggled with mental health, any sane and aware person is feeling at least a little bit stressed or depressed. It’s ok. We are all struggling at different levels and trying to manage it. Some of us are hurting more than others but we are all in this together. Even the guys who think this is all a hoax, they are not completely happy right now. If you are feeling fine, kudos to you — I am not trying to bring you down. My goal is to assist anyone who needs a mood boost and suggest ways to remedy mental negative noise. With all that said, let’s get to the suggestions I have for you.
According to doctors, exercise improves the immune system and digestion, betters blood pressure and bone density, and lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, and even certain cancers. It is not easy to exercise during a pandemic, you may think. Unless you have an elliptical at home that you actually like using, equipment, a mini gym, it’s not doable. Well, actually, there are options. There are phone apps and YouTube videos, for starters. There are also plenty of virtual classes you can take. But if any of that seems too complicated, let’s keep it simple. Here’s a routine I like for myself — by the way, I am not very athletic. I do not particularly prioritize exercising because of the constant interruptions I get from my kids and also because of my workload as a public speaker, coach, and mother of young children. But this plan I am about to share with you is very easy to fit in anyone’s life, even during a pandemic.
Set a goal to exercise for twenty minutes every day (thirty to forty five and you are my champion, but ten still counts). Start with a warm-up by marching in place. You can do that in any small space. Marching in place wakes up your muscles giving you an immediate sensation of energy going up. Do that for a couple of minutes with some music playing to help you have an idea of how long you have been moving. Then, do a little strength work — no need for weights if you do not have them at home. If you do use resistance bands or (my favorite) the wrap around your wrists/ankles sand weights, they can be a pound or two. Even if you do not use weights or resistance bands at all, you can still work on your muscles: simply move your arms up and down in a circle a la DaVinci’s Vitruvian man. You will be stretching at the same time you get your muscles out of consistent rest. Then, move your legs: lift one and hold it, however you like, as high or low as you want. That strengthens the base leg while working on your balance. Stretch and flex your feet and toes while your leg is still up then switch legs and repeat. After all that, start the sequence over. March in place with music, move your arms up and down, lift your legs a little, and stretch.
It is a very simple sequence. If you repeat it three to four times, you will get your twenty minutes of light exercise, which is better than slouching between work and chores. You should ask a friend to join virtually and you can exercise together — you will be motivating and taking care of one another.
Do you still know the words of your favorite songs? When was the last time you added a song to your playlist? Music is important — it can lift your spirit. Remember when Italy was on lockdown? At that time, we thought we were safe here in America… Good times. Poor Italians, on lockdown. No restaurant gatherings, no visiting la nona on Sundays. That was a lot for Italians — they do not enjoy Netflix as we do. They do not have Amazon Prime. I could hear my distant cousins from here, crying, “La vita è così brutta senza gli spaghetti di mamma!” But then, they started singing and playing the cello from their balconies. Duets were performed with their neighbors, keeping social distance. A new way of connecting while entertaining was created. And they got by, focusing on the beauty of music from old Italian balconies. So, if you sing or play an instrument, there was never a better time to do it. Alone, from your balcony, or live streaming it on social media. Why not? If you do not want to perform, you must still remember to enjoy music for its benefits.
Some people are reclusive and enjoy isolation. But for the most part, we need to stay connected. Our thoughts and worries must be shared or else they may drag us down. The ability to share our lives now requires adaptation, like Clara’s monologue suggests: “You’ll adapt… Probably.” We are adapting. Some of us quicker than others. Make it a goal rather than waiting for things to go back to what they once were. Create a new reality for yourself that you enjoy. We do not know when things are going to go back to what we perceived as normal. Rather than waiting for the uncertainty to lift itself, adapt to it, like Anne Frank. Do not focus on the misery but on the things you can appreciate.
Take your friends shopping… virtually
Time can be wasted when we get into the rabbit hole of online shopping. From needing an item and getting distracted by pop-up suggestions to browsing out of boredom and seeing hours pass that could have been used productively. Going shopping at the mall with a friend, though, used to be fun — now it is unwise.
To get the best of both worlds — distracting yourself for hours while spending time with a friend, you can now take your shopping virtually. One way of doing it is sharing your screen inside your meeting app while browsing your favorite store. Just like you would do in person, you can browse until something perfect is found, not necessarily making a purchase. You can interrupt the shopping as frequently as you want to chat about a random topic. That is just like going to the mall, minus nightmare parking and aimlessly walking. I, for instance, dread looking for the right clothing size. With a friend, instead of carrying three samples into a fitting room, you can both look at the size charts and kindly wait for your girlfriend to place the measure tape around her curves, compare the chart with reviews — “true to size” or “runs small/big” — so you can solve the complicated sizing puzzle together. A true friend would not only enjoy “going shopping” like this, she would look forward to it.
Besides, if you are not yet set up with a weekly virtual movie night, you need to catch up with the trend. Similarly to the virtual mall shopping experience but with a group as large as your meeting app allows, each person will be watching from their home, with their microwaved popcorn in hand. The host will play the movie, sharing their screen with sound. The movie can come from a DVD player hooked to the host’s computer or from a streaming subscription. Virtual guests can be muted or allowed to speak, as long as they are in a quiet room with no background sound interfering with everyone’s experience. If muted, the chat may be left open for side comments. However your crowd’s boat floats. Switch it up to a TV show if you prefer, and schedule a binge watching session or a couple of nights a week to watch your favorite shows episodes together. And don’t forget to chat at the end, when everyone gets to discuss the movie or episode they just watched. If you get that going for your friends, they will appreciate the grown up virtual gatherings after the kids have gone to bed.
My nine-year-old daughter uses a meeting app from a laptop. I allow her because she knows she is being monitored and she is willing to shut down the meeting if an intruder hacks into the meeting. We review the rules every day and I do consistent walk-ins. She spends hours a day with her best friend doing homework, playing Roblox, and just chatting. Both girls immediately say, “I have to go now” when a parent calls them for dinner. If they can have fun together this way, so can you.
The most important point I am trying to make here is: if you haven’t yet, make using virtual meetings not just part of your job but part of your social life. Cross that technology bridge for your own sake. Get tech savier every day, and assist your parents in doing the same. Not per our choice, this is how we are saying goodbye to loved ones lately. When a loved one is hospitalized during this pandemic, you may experience not being able to be physically present. Being there virtually will have to do the job, even though that is far from ideal. It’s not the same but it’s something.
Take a moment every day to be grateful for your life, for the people in it, and for anything that brings you joy. Small things count. To me, stepping onto my apartment’s balcony to get some fresh air brings me joy. I can watch the sunset there, sometimes as late as 8:13 pm in the summer — almost past my children’s bedtime and I can still see the sky turning from orange-blue to red-purple until it gets dark. Being grateful for small pleasures is like drinking only a third of the wine in my glass or eating half of the slice of a cake. If I do it with awareness, it feels good: quality, not quantity.
I cannot end this piece without sharing a personal story with you about someone who was a role model for me: my grandmother Edith. She was good at seeing the beauty as opposed to the misery. Grandma Edith volunteered to be a nurse during the second world war when she went to Montecastello with the allies to the US. She took care of wounded soldiers. Before she went, my grandfather got mad at her and said he wanted to break off their engagement if she insisted on going. So she took off her engagement ring, placed it in his palm, closed it, kissed his cheek, and wished him the best. Needless to say, he changed his mind. After she completed her military training and was ready to get on the plane, he was there to put it back on her finger before she flew away. Good for him — she was the best person he ever knew. She was the best person I ever knew.
She helped soldiers fight Nazis and I am proud of her every day. Everything I do, in a way, is hoping that she looks down at me and feels proud too. She used to talk to me about the war. Not because she wanted to, in particular, but because I was curious and kept asking. I wanted to know how regular folks lived in times of uncertainty. She told me how people made their everyday lives as normal as they could, for their children. They would try and get bread. If they could get chocolate and cigarettes, that was like winning the lottery. So the nurses like herself would go visit people on their day off and bring cigarettes and small treats.
The best story she told me was this one: she went with two of her friends to visit this Italian man who had a wife and children. It was her first time going and, unaware of the protocol, she did not bring a present. When they got there, her friends had cigarettes, candy, magazines, and a few other gifts to the family. Grandma apologized for not bringing anything. The host said, ‘Please, do not apologize. We appreciate you coming, that is all we look forward to.’ And that was true. The cigarettes were nice but, just like with Anne Frank, the company was better than the magazines.
They hung out for a few hours and when they were ready to leave, the man had thank you gifts in little pouches for each lady. My grandma did not want to take one. She said, “I didn’t even bring you anything.” But he insisted, so, she put it in her shirt pocket and showed him, “Look, I have it. I will open it later.” The ladies went back to their campsite and grandma’s friends wanted to open their gifts, excited. To their joy, it was jewelry. Both got cute little pendant charms, and they asked Edith to open hers, which she did. Her gift was a purple gem encrusted with gold, with a design of a flower. Probably the most beautiful piece of jewelry they all had ever seen — certainly the prettiest I have. Grandma used to be amused that her friends protested, “You didn’t even bring him anything and you get the best thank you gift?” They certainly missed the point their host made earlier in the day: the gifts were nice but it was the company that they looked forward to. And he was grateful that she had come along, albeit empty handed. He appreciated the gifts but instinctively wanted to show clear gratitude for their presence. So, make sure you keep each other company, for your presence is important. Remember Anne Frank: Don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.
“In Times of Uncertainty” was presented virtually as a motivational speech to the Women’s Club of Palm Isles On July 23, 2020.