Whenever I go to my grandmother’s house, I ask her about the time the world turned upside down in the blink of an eye.
“Well, when I was twelve, something called Coronavirus ripped through our country. It was so scary.”
I nod my head, and wait.
“People were dying. There weren’t enough ventilators, or masks. Big cities were hit very, very hard.”
She takes a moment and shakes her head at the memory of it all.
“The government called for a quarantine. They closed everything—schools, shopping malls, hair salons, restaurants.”
But how did they learn?
“You remember that my father was a dentist?”
I nod. I’ve never met my great-grandfather, but I know his name was Joseph. I’d heard lots of stories about his homemade pizza, and how much he loved the Yankees, and his big, sweeping hugs.
“Well, he had to close his practice during the quarantine. So he taught us. Every morning, he set all five of us up at our desks and he went over our work.”
I imagined the dark-haired man from the pictures I’d seen, helping his teenage son through a math problem.
“New Hampshire led the nation in remote learning,” she tells me with a hint of pride.
“Our teachers and principals scrambled to put together lesson plans and reading programs. They made sure we didn’t fall behind, no matter how long the quarantine lasted.”
Her eyes mist over when she thinks of her father.
“He loved to explain. He loved to talk about math concepts, and science, and history. We discovered that deep down in his heart, he was a teacher.”
I tell her it all sounds pretty boring—remote learning and no friends and only seeing your own family day after day.
“Well, sure, at first. But we figured out ways to stay entertained. We went outside, and took long walks and hikes together. We never really had time before for things like that.”
Never had time? I thought of my own sunny afternoons, spent climbing the hills around my house.
“We dragged all these old games out of the closet. Connect Four, Monopoly, Clue. My father was so competitive! He and my brother Charlie, they could play chess for hours. We never had much time for stuff like that either.”
I try to picture the kind of life where there is no time for walks outside, or board games. It’s hard to imagine, to be honest.
“You know how my mother wasn’t much of a cook?”
I covered my mouth and giggled. Many jokes had been made about Carrie Cariello and her cooking. The way they told it, she made bland food—pork chops, broiled chicken, that sort of thing. Tasteless, and boring.
“It’s true, she wasn’t much of a cook, but she did love a party. So she started to make our meals like she was entertaining all of her friends. She used our best dishes, and piled snacks on a wooden platter. And every single night, we sat at the table and ate.”
“You didn’t eat dinner together before that?” I ask.
“Oh, no,” Grandma always says. “We were way too busy.”
Why? Why were they so busy?
“Oh, every day after school we rushed around like nuts. We drove from practice to practice, and field to field. We went to Drivers Ed, and ballet. We spent more time in our cars than at home.”
“Yes,” she explained as patiently as she explained it to me the first three dozen times. “Before cars drove themselves, we had to go to school, and learn how to drive.”
Weird, I thought.
“During dinnertime?” It seems so odd. “But when did you sit together and laugh and talk and argue? When did you pray?”
“We really didn’t.”
She lays out the game pieces one by one on the tablecloth, and shrugs.
“During the quarantine, we learned to live with less,” she continued. “Or we learned to live with what we had. At first everyone went crazy, emptying the shelves in the grocery store. You couldn’t find a roll of toilet paper anywhere.”
She snorts into her hand, remembering the way people haggled for toilet paper the same way one might haggle for a diamond, or an expensive watch.
“It wasn’t all great though. It was hard, being together so much. I think my parents felt a lot of stress. In fact,” she smiled at the memory, “they spent an entire day not speaking because my father turned the water off when my mother was trying to fill a pot to make spaghetti.”
But it was good, she told me. It was good for her family of seven—a mother and a father and four boys and one daughter—to realize they could fight, and disagree, and come back to one another once more.
“What about your brother? The one with autism?”
I’d heard a lot about him, this tall boy with glasses.
“Jack? Well, he did okay. I mean, at first he was pretty anxious. He wore gloves in the house. He sprayed so much Lysol my mother had to hide it from him. But we settled into a routine, and that helped. Every night he made us popcorn.”
I nodded, remembering how much he loved popcorn with lots of extra butter.
We sat quietly for a moment, setting up the board.
“It was a chance to celebrate,” she said suddenly.
Celebrate? How could a quarantine where your family is stuck inside for weeks on end and the economy in question and people out of work be a chance to celebrate? I ask her this, and she just shakes her head, as though I couldn’t possibly understand.
“Well, we celebrated the people who were on the front lines every single day—who fought this vicious, invisible enemy. Nurses. Emergency room doctors. Truck drivers. Pharmacists. These became our modern-day heroes. These were people who put themselves at risk—their own families at risk—to help.”
“We celebrated things we never gave any thought to in ordinary times. Our health. The fact that we were together, and safe, with good food to eat and games to play.”
She hesitates for a second, thinking back to this faraway time.
“I think it changed us. It changed our country. It made us better.”
I considered this idea. I thought about a country obsessed with work, and status, and practices on a field.
I thought of them retreating indoors, and emerging once again, healed.
“You ready to lose?” she asks me with a gleam in her eye.
I smile. I know she is thinking of her father, and his gift as her teacher.
I know she is thinking of four brothers crowded at the table, and forks on special white plates.
As she picks up the dice, I ask her one last question. I ask it every time she tells me this story.
Grandma Rose, was it awful?
Awful? Why, no.
It was the happiest time of my life.