We’re into the tenth month of stay-at-home recommendations. The only regular interactions we have are with our daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons. We always meet outside, always wearing masks. We miss the Fridays we used to care for the little boys before they headed back to socially-distanced school. Oh, how I wish to pull them onto my lap and share a book. Our custom now is to sit opposite from each other when we read. They miss our old coziness, too. The younger one, who is 3 1/2, solemnly told me, “When germ season is over, we can go into your house again, Nana.” The older one, 5 1/2, is planning a two-night sleepover when the situation changes.
Meanwhile, I wonder how this exceptional year will impact the rest of their lives. They’ve come to accept maskwearing as easily as they might a warm coat. But the constant precautions they hear pervade how they understand the world. For instance, they have been reading Greek myths with their mom and were talking about the god Pan.
“Pan is naughty,” said my daughter.
“Yes,” the littlest agreed. “He doesn’t wash his hands.”
We are writers, the keepers of the stories. How will we tell the stories of this world-wide pandemic?
Recently I read Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which recounts another world-wide horror: World War II. He tells the story of Winston Churchill and the UK, focusing on the 12-month period when Hitler waged a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons, 30,000 of them Londoners. It is a spellbinding account – woven of stories big and small – of how Churchill held the country together and persuaded FDR to join the fight.
Among Larson’s resources are diaries collected as part of the Mass Observation project, founded by an anthropologist, a filmmaker and a poet at the University of Sussex. They felt newspapers were not accurately conveying public opinion around King Edward VIII’s 1936 abdication of the throne to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson. They recruited almost 500 volunteers to systematically document feelings about this historical event by collecting anecdotes, overheard comments, and “man-in-the-street” interviews in diaries.
When history took the dark turn to WWII, these diarists continued to keep day-to-day accounts of their lives, sometimes reflecting a wider perspective on history than news reports. No special instructions were given to the diarists so their writings vary greatly in their style, content and length. The project continued to the mid-sixties, then was revived in 1981. Archives are held at the University of Sussex.
What resources will future historians consult to understand the effects of our current pandemic?
They will be inundated by accounts on both social media and traditional news sources. I think the challenge will be wading through the ocean of source material.
They might start with the Sunday New York Times in late May. Did you see it? The front section was dedicated to the first 100,000 people who died. Under the headline “An Incalculable Loss,” they listed the names, dates, locations and a single sentence for each person, gathered from nearly 300 news sources. Stuff like: Great grandmother with an easy laugh. Could recite Tennyson from memory. Preferred bolo ties and suspenders. Quiet hero. Man, could she cook. Den mother for Cub Scout Pack 9. Each sentence evokes a lifetime. The interactive version is here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/24/us/us-coronavirus-deaths-100000.html You have to scroll and scroll and scroll to get from the beginning to the end. It’s heartbreaking.
These past weeks I have been working on our 2021 McGee family calendar. I am the middle of five sibs and our family numbers almost 70 now. Our mom started the calendar tradition in the 80’s and we five have kept it up, taking turns to gather the previous year’s photos that tell the story of our children and grandchildren growing up. All together, the calendars make a family archive: vacations, weddings, deaths and births. (We are hoping the first fourth-generation baby, a great-great niece whose due date is Dec. 11, will be born before we have to go to press.)
This year I used my grandsons’ vivid art for backgrounds, as well as my niece Anna’s beautiful batiks and some backgrounds from my books. I grouped COVID-19 photos on the back: family members playing board games, setting up socially-distanced outdoor meeting spaces, wearing masks – even a photo of a masked grandniece and her date posing for their traditional picture before leaving for the prom.
There’s a photo of our immediate family there on the back of the calendar, too. We’re playing Sleeping Queens at the patio table, masked and bundled against COVID and the cold. We are part of the story.