Between the ages of four and eight, I lived in a north-end Pittsburgh neighborhood. Our rented house resembled the Adam’s family home: decrepit, dreary, distorted. Perched on one of two hills, with Jack’s Run Road running between, the old house was large enough to be divided into two living spaces. A family whose last name was Barefoot lived in the other half. The house was approached by a steep driveway and surrounded by a sparse lawn—neither my father nor Mr. Barefoot were fond of yard work. On the other hill there was a convent, beneath it a sprawling apple orchard.
My friends at that time had oddly alliterative names: Douggy Dobler, Billy Bickel, Bussy Barefoot. There was no attention paid to the fact that I was the only girl. Occasionally, my parents and I would visit old friends of theirs who had a daughter my age. Her name was Maureen and I have always called her Mar. I would gleefully announce to my friends that I was going to Mars. My parents would back me up, unaware of the implications. Of course, the glory associated with this deception lasted only until Mar and her family came to visit us and she was introduced to my playmates.
Childhood antics aside, the house on Jack’s Run Road was haunted. It was haunted by a creature that sabotaged my dreams and pranked my daytime composure. A shape-shifting creature that might have been a demon escaped from the nuns across the road. It might have been Mothman come up from West Virginia. Or a Phynnoddere, a bugbane, a Gef, that followed my grandmother to this country from the Isle of Man, perhaps Jimmy Squarefoot himself.
Whatever it was, it was there to menace the perfectly carefree childhood I should have had. Perhaps all children have such a creature frightening them, startling them, drawing on their darker natures. Perhaps none of us are allowed the freedom of uncontinual glee.
My creature slept in the coal cellar, rattled the windows in thunder storms, pushed me out of one of the nun’s apple trees, animated the shadow of the pear tree on my bedroom wall, sent a tiger to Billy Bickel’s yard to stalk me, smashed my face into a stump on Douggy Dobler’s sled, set fire to my dreams for a month, loosened the plaster on the ceiling so it would fall, sent an army of tiny soldiers climbing the wall of the school nurse’s office to harass me when I was sick, and periodically hid my possessions.
I don’t dwell on such nuisance. It’s the source of my (perhaps false sense of) fierceness, and certainly my sense of humor. It prepared me for what has come and what will come. It exposes the whimsy of fate and auspicious possibilities destiny.
I get dressed when I get up in the morning. I brush my teeth, wash my face, do my Tai Chi forms, and check my email (just to delete the dross). Then, while I fix breakfast, I watch “Leave it to Beaver.” This is a recent activity as I no longer feel comfortable spreading the newspaper out in order to scan the contents while I eat. In fact, we’ve discontinued newspaper delivery in favor of a digital subscription but I have deep fears about the possible effects of dripping egg and toast crumbs on my computer. So I tune into the “Beav.”
I marvel at June Cleaver’s ensembles, the clothes she wears for housework: clever day dresses and pearls, heels. I’m awestruck by the engineering feat of her perfectly coiffed hair. She stores her groceries directly into kitchen cabinets. and refrigerator. There are no masks, no gloves involved and food remains in their original containers. (She does don a frivolous half-apron in which to cook.) Life is easy at the Cleaver’s, and the show drowns out the sound of ambulances.
Having grown up in similar circumstances, I never aspired to such a life. I wanted adventure, noise, grit. So I’ve enjoyed my life in the city. I may be a “small fish in a big pond,” but I’ve had the opportunity to know some of the best and brightest, to see some of the world. I’ve failed many things but never regretted taking the risk.
Still, during this time of quarantine, one thing I didn’t think I’d long for is the subway. But I miss the ride. I miss the drummers and the Mariachi band, and the pole dancers who high-five an old lady. I miss watching fellow travelers, the comradely of a late train. I miss losing myself in a playlist of my own devising while traveling to other neighborhoods.
My playlists are now motivation for yoga (warier stances to “Country Joe and the Fish”), which I do in lieu of climbing up and down subway stairs, and walking…Short walks in the neighborhood are divided between views of spring blossoms and the stand of National Guard at the community center; tulips and daffodils versos frightened people in masks and rubber gloves.
I spend a pleasant half hour in Beaumont with the Cleavers then turn them off. Time slips by while I go nowhere, but there are still adventures to be had, in books and imagination, with friends that are more than virtual; with the memory of a young woman who can apply makeup perfectly on a moving train, a boy who can woo a girl in the presence of a crowd of strangers.
We turn the sound of the TV up so we can’t hear the noise of ambulance sirens and we reflect on places we’ve seen: Cairo, Venice; Morgantown, West Virginia. The Red Sea, the Potala Palace, the Winchester Mystery House. The Trolly in Lisbon, elephants in the Bronx, the Southern Cross. And places we’ve seen only in our minds: the streets of Timbuktu, the Carpathian Mountains, Macondo.
We read books we haven’t had time for and reread ones we love. We see friends virtually, knowing they’re anything but “virtual friends.”
We long for family.
We long for an old normal.
We try to normalize a new order.
We hold the ones we love the most…at length, closely.
We’re alone together, together alone.
We find freedom in our minds even though we’re trapped in them.
I’ve seen heroes and terrorists. I’ve seen seven continents.
I raised children who do good in the world.
I am a student of Tai Chi Ch’uan, daughter of a magician, and decedent of a miner who left a mystic isle to dig black coomb in tunnels he couldn’t stand in. I do not fear enclosure.
I’m Amelia Earhart, Patti Smith, Alice in Wonderland.
I’m made of the “stuff“ of stars, and we do not fall easily.
I am trying to lead an ordinary inside life, on my own schedule that is filled but not quite loose. I dress according to my mood: frivolous or grunge. I get up, do my tai chi forms, eat breakfast, attend to household chores, email, haver about the web, consider writing/editing old stories, loose concentration. Eat lunch. After this, I might take a walk with my husband if the weather is ok, or read a bit. Afternoons are for ironing on random days, or I might take a nap—something I very rarely did before, despite life-long insomnia, but recent stress related incidents…
Then a little yoga, 20 min, 45 min (mostly 20). My Spanish lesson: “Yo soy abuela.” Ok, the vocabulary is coming slowly. (I still have to look up English words when I read, for heaven’s sake!) And grammar is years away. “Mi camisita es rojo.” Why does “T-shirt” sound so much like Kama Sutra?
I check-up on friends by phone, which is as much for me as for them.
Then back to the internet, a quick scan of social media (until my heart starts to pound). Is it six yet? Close enough. A glass of wine, two lately, generous pours. My husband insists on watching, at the least, local news. I practice avoidance by clanking pots and dishes, supper preparation. (I also avoid the orange villain and his horde holding their daily rallies to pronounce untrue prevarication, antipathy, and ugliness.)
After supper, clean up, shower, TV, reading, lights out. There is some roaming in the the night, some reading, snacking, Ambien.
Outside, the city (New York City) is eerily silent and clear. We normally have to go to the Planetarium to see stars, some are visible now without the admission cost.
Does it sound peaceful?
Actually we live anxiety attack to anxiety attack, nightmare to nightmare. Heart pounding, eye burning, hypochondriac blips, wondering if I should write that last letter to my husband, children, grandchildren. (I love you, LOVE you, proud to have been your wife, mother, grandnan…)
For all of you out there who are getting work done and children home-schooled, I’m awed by you. You have my enduring respect. For those of you who are going out and doing your jobs: medical, police, delivery, garbage, mail, grocery workers, truck drivers, firemen..for all of you, 10,000 blessings. And 10,000 more.
Virtual hugs to everyone. Namaste. Peace. Power. Whatever that Star Trek thing is, “Wakanda forever,” military salute, high-five/fist bump mime, air kiss…