My dearest, darling girl, I am writing to you during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 when you are just 14 months old. And let me tell you, my sweet girl, you are the light of my life. When you see me, you smile and reach out your arms to me, then you attach yourself to my shoulder and neck as a baby monkey attaches itself to its mother and you hold on for dear life–for several minutes, mind you–as if your life depends on it! All the while I kiss you and tell you I love you and hold you close to let you know that you are always welcome and safe in my arms and that I will keep holding you, that you need not be frightened that I won’t. And on our weekly Penny days, we will go in my car and have adventures!
Before each adventure, we must spend a few awkward minutes as I try to get you into that detestable carseat that never seems to fit you properly. The drill: I place you in the carseat then hand you your favorite play-in-the-car toys–the stuffed animal sloth baby; your “car keys” and remote key fob that beep; your two hair brushes, one orange and one black (and you hilariously try to brush your hair always with the back of the brush instead of the bristles); and one of my lipglosses, tightly closed. You are patient during this time as I snap the four-points of the carseat locks, phew! Then I can get in my seat, turn on the car and our music, and off we go!!!! Wheeeeeeee!!!!!!!
Just a few weeks ago we walked around the Island Home neighborhood of South Knoxville with your grandpa Kurt and your great aunt Lisa who is continuing her cancer treatments. Lisa’s four months of chemotherapy and radiation from late October to mid February were brutal, and she was not able to see us much during those months. But now she is having immunotherapy shots which do not cause her to be nauseous and ill as she was before. She says she is in pain all the time, but her painkillers help, so she was able to walk around with us on this mild day in early March. You look up at her in wonderment as she talks and talks and talks. Perhaps you think she sounds like me, but you are confused because she looks different.
Although you recently entered your wary-of-strangers period, you hold Lisa’s hand (along with mine, of course) and look up at her as if you are trying to understand what it all means. I can tell, you sweet darling girl, I too am struggling to understand what it all means these days. People are dying of a new virus that strikes in widely diverse ways: some people get pneumonia and die gasping for breath, some people shake with chills and fevers that are worse then even the flu that I had when I was a freshman in college. Some of the people who have shared their experiences of the virus online say they could not imagine they could feel any worse and actually live. And yet other people have mild symptoms or none at all. This disparity of experience is what makes the virus so dangerous: people can have it for days with no outward symptoms and, if they are around other people, they can infect them and each person’s immune system dictates how bad the virus will be.
I fear for your future, my darling girl! Your father has asthma and is in a high-risk category, meaning my dear, that he could die more easily than other people if he should contract the virus. Your great-aunt Lisa is also in a high-risk category because she has a weakened immune system due to her chemotherapy treatments. Your great-grandmother–my mother, who your father calls Mamaw–is 84 years old in a few weeks. No one has been able to get her to stop going to work at the family business. At least we were able to get her off the cash register which she was still working behind until a few weeks ago. But she goes to work each weekday, except Wednesday which is her day off, and exposes herself to the germs of her co-workers as well as the people who come into buy things. In her defense, we can say she had a stroke a few years ago and maybe that made her more stubborn than before. It also made her less mentally agile too. At her age, if she gets the virus she has a good chance of being one of those people who ends up in the intensive care unit of our local hospital where none of us will be allowed to visit her. And if she should die, we would not be able to hold a funeral for fear of spreading the virus. But we must not dwell on the things that could happen and the things we can do nothing about.
It does indeed sound mad, my dear sweetie, but many people in our family are not taking this virus very seriously at all. Luckily your father is able to work from home; what a relief that he stills has a job and that he can work from home. Although your mother is highly educated with a master’s degree, it is quite lucky that she quit working at her full-time job in the fall of last year to devote more time to her children, so she is safely at home and able to care for you and your adorable older brother Lincoln—who has always been sooooooo dear to my heart! Ah, how I love him, and you!
You may wonder what Lincoln, who is 15 months older than you and is now 2 and a 1/2 years old, has been doing during this time of death and dying in our country. Well, before the outbreak, he had been attending a wonderful Montessori school for about a year, but his school has been closed to keep the virus from spreading. When we saw you and your brother a week or so ago, every time you picked up a toy he took it away from you and emphatically said, “No sir”. We, the adults in the room, would laugh and negotiate with him that he must allow you to have the brown bunny we brought you, that he had his own blue bunny. And really it was ok if you had the red toy when he had the green one, and so on.
Your mother Tracy explained that she and you father had said, “No sir,” to Lincoln about something he was doing and now he has extended this emphatic dictum to you in no uncertain terms. Although it is crazy funny to hear Lincoln hand down his “No sir” judgement in your general direction, and all the adults (Kurt, Tracy, and me) in the room try to get him to see that are plenty of toys for the both of you, you seem to be mostly unbothered by his inability to share. I say mostly because occastionally you complain, but most often you plow forward as if Lincoln’s efforts to control you do not exist at all.
When I carry you into our house, I set your feet on the floor because you have been walking for a few weeks now, my dear! You were here last Friday and when you got in the house, you immediately and very clearly said, “Cat”. You are fascinated by our cat Cadi Kitty who tolerates you pretty well. I showed you that I can point my finger at Cadi Kitty and she sniffs it approvingly, demonstrating that you can stick your tiny finger in front of Cadi Kitty’s nose, and she will bend her nose toward it. Sometimes kitty will allow you to touch the fur near her tail but, for the most part, you toddle toward Cadi Kitty like a little drunk man because you are still getting used to walking on your legs instead of crawling. Of course, kitty walks or runs away and takes shelter in another spot, then hides under or behind a piece of furniture. It isn’t your fault, Penny dear, cats are just very wary of small children. If we had a dog, well, it would be another matter.
And , oh by the way, my darling, it is not clear at this point what you shall call your grandfather Kurt or me. When your parents asked Kurt for his preference in this regard, he agreed that Papa was a heartwarming choice, but neither you nor Lincoln have taken up the charge and called him that. Of course, the only clear words I have heard you say are cat, ki cat (for kitty cat), and mama, ao as you get older you may choose to call him Kurt or Papa or granddad or Poopsie, who knows! As for what you shall call me, I thought about it long and hard when Lincoln was young, and came up with Mimi which isn’t really such a great choice at all. A friend of mine’s grandchildren call her Gigi which I think suits me very well because I love things that are, or sound as if they are, French! But you may choose to call me Anna or Yaya or Boobala, who knows?! I would prefer that you and Lincoln come up with your own name for me, as long as it isn’t terribly depressing name such as Granny or something equally sad.
On a far more important matter, we have the misfortune, my darling girl, of having a president of our country who is the worst possible leader for such an unprecedented health crisis. If all goes well and you live through this pandemic, you will study him in school and shake your head in wonderment that he was the president in charge of our collective lives and livelihoods.
You may wonder that he was elected to lead our country since he got 3 million less votes than the woman who won the majority of votes cast in 2016. This appalling state of affairs was set in motion at the founding of our country. Apparently the slave-owning states in the late 1700s and 1800s did not have enough population to control their destiny among the non-slave-owning states, so they insisted on certain concessions to be part of the Union. First the slave states wanted slaves to account for three-fifths of a person so their power in Congress, based on population, would be greater. Then they wanted elections for the president of the country to be based on something called an Electoral College where the popular vote would not elect the highest office in the land. Instead the people would vote for “electors” who were aligned with each of the two presidential party candidates. These electors would vote for whoever won the vote in their state (although each state had a different view of how to apportion the electors’ votes). This sounds convoluted, and it is. Under this crazy system, twice in this new century, two losing candidates have become president with unfortunate consequences for the country both times.
My dear girl, the first popular-vote-losing president in modern history took our country to war in 2003 over false pretenses which cost the lives of many American soldiers as well as untold numbers of people in Iraq. To this day, 17 years later, Iraq is still an unsettled mess. Our second popular-vote-losing president is the one who leads our country now. Before he ran for president, he hosted a reality television game show of sorts in which contestants vied to win a job in his company. He fired the contestants he did not like in a very dramatic manner. On the show he played the part of a successful businessman, despite all his bankrupt businesses. He was very sure of himself so many people in the country found him to be compelling when he decided to run for the presidency in 2016. In school you can study all the sad decisions made by many people–especially the voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (the three states who m ade the difference in the Electoral College) who voted for this reality show host who had not done anything in his life that wasn’t in his own self-interest. But the main thing we have to hope for now is that in the fall of this year, we will elect a new leader who actually cares for the people in our country and who makes decisions that help everyone in the country not just the people in his tribe who voted for him. Life would be so different with a real leader in charge, but that is enough about that depressing man!
And I must sadly report that the governor of our state of Tennessee has been such a limp rag during this crisis that his only early advisory was for people to pray. While our governor was advocating prayer, the governor of our companion state of Kentucky took early action to save the lives of his people. Now at this point, on March 31, 2020, as published in the The New York Times, there are more than 1600 reported cases of the virus in Tennessee and only 400 or so reported cases in Kentucky. Our state has 6.77 million people and Kentucky has 4.468 million. For another comparison, Texas has 28.7 million people and over 3000 reported cases. So you can see that Tennessee, with its 6.77 million people and 1600+ cases, has more than half the cases of Texas with 28.7 million people. Gee, thanks Governor Bill Lee, for doing so little that many people in our state will die due to your lack of vision and poor leadership. Sheesh! Don’t get me started!
You may ask what we do every day now that your grandfather Kurt and I spend every day at home, sheltering in place. Normally Kurt would be out of town at least half of each month with his work as a self-employed consultant providing training as an independent contractor. But Kurt’s work has been cancelled until July, so as it rains outside, I can hear your grandfather typing a letter on his typewriter in his office upstairs.
If he isn’t tapping on his typewriter, he is playing his guitar or mandolin. Just like your beloved mother who plays the piano, Kurt is a musician! I do not play an instrument, my love, but I do sing to you as often as possible. Besides singing to songs on my Apple playlist, when I give you a bottle, I sing “Sing A Song of Sixpence”, an English nursery rhyme dating to at least the 1700s. The version I grew up hearing from my Irish grandmother and German-Irish mother is different from the one shown on Wikipedia. It goes like this:
Sing a song of sixpence
A pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
The bird began to sing
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before a king.
The king was in his counting house
Counting all his money.
The queen was in the parlor
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird
And snapped off her nose.
You naughty, naughty blackbird
I need my little nose
To sniff the lovely soap suds
When I wash the clothes.
I’ll get a sugar cookieOur family’s version of the traditional English nursery rhyme
And hang it on a tree
If you will find my little nose
And bring it back to me.
While Kurt is upstairs, I am in my office downstairs writing to you. During these last few weeks of staying mostly at home, weather permitting, I fight the weeds in my flower beds, tend my small kitchen garden, or go for a walk holding hands with Kurt. Before this crisis, we ate a great deal of our meals in restaurants, but now restaurants are closed except for curb-side pickup. We try to support our favorite restaurants, Farmacy (a restaurant owned by our friend Bettina) and Benefit Your Life (a gluten-free restaurant in West Knoxville) by picking up a meal at their door and eating it in our car. But a restaurant meal doesn’t happen more than once a week, so we cook alot, with grocery store shopping being our main forays into the world.
I go to my part-time job at the family business around once a week to take photos that I place on social media. I talk with girl friends occasionally on the phone which allows us to share experiences of how our lives have changed since the lock down–and occasionally we laugh which is quite welcome since there is not much to laugh about these days. And let me make it clear to you, my sweetheart, that we never in all the world thought we would be living like this, buttoned up in the house as the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) wages its war on humankind. Older people are most at risk, but even a few children as young as you have died as well. Ever so sad, the deaths, no matter the age of the people involved.
Up to this point, the hardest part of living in this time is the unknown and unknowable aspects of it all. Will we catch the virus? If so, will we have a mild version of it or will we get pneumonia and need to be hospitalized? Will our loved ones get the virus, and we will not be able to see them for fear of getting sick ourselves? Will people we love die and we cannot celebrate their lives by giving them a funeral? If we get ill with the virus, where can we go for medical attention now that our primary care physicians’ office has said they are not going to perform coronavirus testing and will see people mostly by teleconferencing? Will our hospitals in Knoxville have enough ventilators for all the seriously ill people who will be fighting for each breath? Will our governor stop being an inmitigated disaster and more strictly define essential business and ban all large gatherings to save lives, including church services and funerals? When will our friends who have lost their jobs go back to work? When will Kurt go back to work? What about our friends who own small businesses who are suffering with little income or none? Will there be enough personal protective equipment to protect the medical professionals who are fighting on the front lines of this pandemic? Will the decisions that need to be made to save our people and country be made in a timely manner or at all? If we get sick and need urgent medical care, will we be able to afford to pay the medical bills even though we have health insurance? What about the people who have lost their health insurance because they have lost their jobs?
Yes, my dearest darling, this is a harrowing time. But I will tell you that my great-grandmother Cordelia Nichols Montgomery lived through the horrendous influenza outbreak of 1918, even though she lost her beloved daughter Luva Vera to the flu at the age of 10 in Fries, Virginia. Earlier Cordelia also lost her first baby daughter Rose Elizabeth who died the same day she was born on January 31, 1899. Cordelia’s much-loved husband John died at the age of 53 of hepatic carcinoma, the most common form of liver cancer. And she lost my grandmother Darcus at the age of 31, four months after my father was born in 1935. In fact, of her four daughters, Cordelia had only one daughter, Eutaw Regina, who lived and thrived as an adult. Fortunately Cordelia had five sons who all lived into adulthood, she came from a line of strong women, and she had her faith to console her in hard times.
So my dear Penelope Rose, you have ancestors who endured hardships and lived on. What else is in your favor, my sweet girl? Even though it is not a wise choice during a pandemic, your nearly 84-year-old paternal great-grandmother Arzelia (yes, it is a singular name for a decidedly unique woman) still works five days a week and, until a few weeks ago, she worked a cash register in a thriving business. Your great aunt Lisa is now fighting her second battle with cancer and still manages to weed her yard, walk around the neighborhood, and bring enthusiasm and her positive nature to everything she does. Your mother and father are devoted to you and your brother–and my dear girl, you have two–count them–two sets of grandparents who adore you and your brother and live in the same town as you, which is not a done deal for everyone these days.
Here is my prayer, my sweet darling, that I can live as long as possible so you will have my unconditional love for as long as I can give it. I sense that we are made of the same fiber: We are both passionate, independent, fiercely affectionate, and interested in everything around us. We want to know things for ourselves.
I am now reading a book that is a tribute to a relationship between a feisty woman named Bobby and her much-adored granddaughter Bess who was the light of her life, as you are of mine. Bess Kalb, who is a writer for the Jimmy Kimmel television show, wrote this book entitled Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, in the voice of her grandmother. They were soul mates, my dear Penny Rose, as I hope we will always be. Anyway, when I discovered this book I could not stop reading it and have nearly finished it. I am reading the digital version now with two copies of the book being shipped to me on Friday. Yes, it is that kind of book, and I must share it with as many people as I can. Bess suggested on her Twitter page that people buy her book from their local bookstore. For us, sweet girl, that bookstore is Knoxville’s independent downtown bookseller Union Avenue Books. It is a wonderful bookstore that you and I must visit–after the pandemic crisis is over!
One of the stories that I highlighted in my digital copy of the book is the story of when Bess, a very sensitive girl, would cry every day the babysitter tried to take her to nursery school. So Bess’s mother called her own mother Bobby who lived in another state and asked if she, Bobby, could take Bess to school.
I hung up and got on a plane. She didn’t even finish her next sentence.
We walked into the school, took the elevator up, and when the doors opened you squeezed my hand so hard it almost fell off. You looked straight ahead like I was marching you off the plank. I crouched down to hug you goodbye. You started breathing fast, and your little heart was beating right through your coat and tears started streaming down your cheeks at full force. Big, round tears, I thought someone would call the police. So I took your red face in my hand and looked you in the eye, and I said, ‘Angel, I’ll be right here. Right outside this door. I’m not going anywhere.’ You stopped crying. You knew I wouldn’t lie to you. You didn’t even ask me to promse, you just wiped your eyes with your two hands and walked right in.
Thank God I had The New York Times in my handbag.
Two minutes later–maybe one minute–I heard a little knock on the door. That was our code. So I popped my head up so you could see me through the window on the door and gave you a big, wide smile. ‘Everything’s okay! You’re all right. Grandma’s here.’ You nodded and headed back to the circle of kids. Then five minutes later–knock-knock-knock-knock-knock!–and I popped up through the window and smiled. Then ten minutes, twenty, thirty, and so on. But all day, unless you were napping, you’d give a knock and there I’d be, smiling like a showgirl, letting you know it would be all right. I’m here. You’re safe.
I didn’t get through a single article.
It happened all week. By Friday, you didn’t knock. That’s when I cried.Nobody Will Tell you This But Me by Bess Kalb, published by Knopf
My dearest, darling girl, that is exactly what I want for you: I want to be here for you, smiling like a showgirl, for as long as possible. So that you will know: Everything’s okay. You are alright. Gigi is here!
May you always be ever so yourself for all of your days! And may I be there cheering on the sidelines, encouraging you every step of the way!
~ Anna – 3/31/2020