My Great Aunt Emma was already quite old when I was born. In my memory I think of her as being like Granny, the widowed owner of Tweety on The Looney Tunes but when I look Granny up to confirm the comparison, they only shared gray hair pulled back in tight low bun and a high-pitched voice. My Aunt Emma was incredibly thin, wore the same simple dresses she’d been wearing since she was a young woman and bulky orthotic sneakers. Granny, on the other hand, had an enormous bosom, hinting that she was a curvaceous younger woman, and always donned a white blouse paired with a floor length skirt. It’s likely my memories of the two are intertwined because I was watching Looney Tunes around the same time my dad and Aunt Trudyann spent a lot of energy determining how best to care for Aunt Emma.
Aunt Emma, an older sister of my maternal grandmother, was in her late teens and early twenties during the Great Depression. She never married and lived with my great grandparents until they passed. She spent her entire working life as a grocery clerk at different grocery stores in Owego, New York. She was frugal and thrifty, bringing home expired groceries and gifting family members paper bags full of damaged canned goods. When my great grandparents died and she found herself living alone, her habits forged in surviving the Great Depression, began to morph into lifestyle choices. She not only horded processed food but she kept every newspaper delivered to her. She did not throw away plastic containers but added them to the mountain of multi-colored shapes in the corner of every room. If she was given a gift, she folded the wrapping paper neatly and added it to one of the many piles in her home.
When we visited Aunt Emma, we never stayed in her house or sat uncomfortably on floral furniture, working hard not to fidget and being reprimanded to behave while sucking on a butterscotch, listening to boring stories about cousins we’d never met like we did when visiting other older relatives. We always took her to a restaurant or to my Aunt Trudyann’s for a family gathering. When we dropped her off, she’d insist we come in so she could give us a gift. My parents spoke about my Aunt Emma in hushed voices, but even as a young child, it was obvious the conditions she was living in weren’t normal. In the entry way, towers of newspapers loomed on both sides of the front door, making a suffocating space from which to enter her labyrinth. Once in the house, there was a one-way path bushwhacked from the kitchen to a spot on the couch and then to the stairs. We never went upstairs but my Aunt Trudyann said it was no different than the downstairs. I remember standing along the tiny path that led to the couch, noticing how light struggled to embrace the room on a bright day despite the many windows. The many knickknacks and trash in her house contained colors and she didn’t only wear grey, but all of my memories of her and her surroundings are in black and white.
Despite her penchant for keeping everything, she was incredibly generous. If she saw you glance at or touch anything she’d say, “Would you like to have that clock? It’s broken and I don’t have any use for it” or, pointing at a series of plastic bottles, “Do you think you could use these containers?”
She always made my parents leave with a bag of groceries and I was always excited to hop back in the car and see what was in the bag because often mixed in with the expired cans of corn and black beans was a box of Little Debbie Nutty Bars. I loved a good Nutty Bar, carefully separating the wafers of each bar so I could eat all of the peanut butter first. But often my mom looked at the expiration date stamped on the box and placed it in the trash when we arrived home.
Once, after we moved to North Carolina, Aunt Emma took a Greyhound bus down from New York to visit. While she stayed with us, she slept in my room. One afternoon, as she napped on top of the covers of my bed, I needed a book on my night stand. I snuck in, careful not to wake her, my movement unconsciously choreographed to the rhythm of her snoring. As I crept next to my bed, I felt myself gravitating to the cavern of her dark, oval mouth and the high arches of her nostrils. I was captivated by her elderly-ness. It was both mesmerizing and terrifying. She suddenly stirred and I was jolted from my trance. I grabbed my book and darted from the room.
During Aunt Emma’s stay my mom woke early each morning and drove the trash to the nearby dumpster so Aunt Emma couldn’t take possession of it to take home with her. Despite my mom’s efforts, Aunt Emma loaded up her luggage with an empty orange Tide bottle and the black plastic containers of some Marigolds my mom planted during her visit.
My Aunt Trudyann would often help my Aunt Emma clean her house out, but it was a futile effort, like sweeping the floor in my house when my youngest eats granola bars and my Golden Retriever is shedding. Whenever my Aunt Emma’s hording was discussed, it was always explained as a reaction to the Great Depression. I was too young then to imagine that my Aunt Emma might have ever been a young woman who was different than she was as an old woman, and didn’t ask, “But was she like this when she lived with her parents?” I now know the answer is that she was a mild version of a hoarder when she lived with her parents, but when they died, and her immediate world collapsed, she retreated into the habits she associated with control and surviving. They were a comfort. She believed she was preparing herself should her world collapse again.
I haven’t thought about Aunt Emma much in my life. She was always old and her dying seemed inevitable and when she died, I was too young to comprehend the value of a life lost. I know my dad and my Aunt Trudyann were deeply impacted by her death as they loved her deeply and she was the last remaining connection to their mom, my grandmother, but it was also a relief not to have to worry about her.
During the early weeks of Coronavirus when we shopped infrequently and purchased more cans of crushed tomatoes and garbanzo beans than we could neatly store on our shelves, I thought of Aunt Emma and her bags of canned goods. I’d hear her high-pitched voice when I saw elderly patients at nursing homes when talking about those most vulnerable to Coronavirus. I’d remember how she called my father his childhood nickname when I worried whether he was doing enough to protect himself from the virus. I could feel the callousness and topography of her fingers from when she held my young smooth hand in the backseat of the car when I watched my kids Facetime with my in-laws who were taking the virus seriously. As the media compares Coronavirus unemployment statistics to those of the Great Depression, I wonder what it was like for her to have been a young woman through such a difficult time. I am curious about the lasting impact of surviving the period. And I wonder about the lasting impact of 2020 on me.
I am quite fortunate. My family is healthy and we are able to work remotely. We are taking social distancing quite seriously and wear masks in public. I am white and privileged and when I am pulled over for speeding, I am frustrated and angered at the inconvenience and expense but I do not fear for my life. I live far from the fires that are turning the skies of the west orange and far from the hurricanes of the southeast that are multiplying in number and force. The world seems to be rapidly fraying at the edges, and I feel powerless to stop it.
When I watch the news or check social media, I understand the frustration and fear of those living on the edge during Coronavirus. Those who have jobs that place them on the front lines or those that have jobs that are deemed “non-essential” and find themselves struggling to make ends meet. What I don’t understand are the decisions made by those that share my upper middle-class bubble that have decided wearing a mask is too uncomfortable or that no one going to limit their ability to meet a friend for a drink. I do not understand those that close their ears to the stories of people of color about how their lives have been impacted by racist and broken systems. I do not understand those that fail to acknowledge the hypocrisy of controlling a woman’s body when it holds a fertilized egg but believing it is acceptable to separate children from their parents at the border. I do not understand those whose homes are flooded year after year by hurricanes but they refuse to acknowledge the science of global warming.
There is just so much I don’t understand.
As I encounter or scroll through the posts of those with whom I can seem to find no common ground, as I watch a “Trump Train” drive past my neighborhood, as I overhear conversations where conspiracy theories are treated as fact, I find myself growing irrationally angry. Growing furious at people that in a normal world I make small talk with. Some of these people I consider friends. I find their decisions and beliefs selfish and foolish and I know I am about to lose myself, careening on my rear end off the slippery slope of concluding that they are in fact selfish fools who do not care about others.
I know this isn’t fair. As strongly as I believe they are wrong, they think the same of me. As much as I find their ideas dangerous, they believe the same of my ideas. Is my anger really about the decisions and beliefs of others or is it the fact that people aren’t doing what I believe is so obviously right?
Despite knowing the serenity prayer, I cannot stop fixating on the actions of others.
In a normal world, I loved grocery shopping. I have no logical explanation for my adoration of a well-stocked and organized grocery store. I love studying how food products are marketed, what is new, what is on sale. When I back-packed through Europe, my travel journal was full of reviews of the grocery stores experienced in each city – some had tiny aisles, some contained entire rows dedicated to food seasoned with paprika, some let you pick your own eggs so you could buy just one or two at a time.
Before Coronavirus, I wandered casually through the grocery store, always following the same route, buying our family’s staples and occasionally picking out a few new items to try. But the grocery store experience changed dramatically with Coronavirus. Before wearing masks was mandated, grocery stores felt confrontational. Those who shopped boldly with no masks seemed to be screaming just in the way they carried themselves, “I do not care about you! I think I am smarter than doctors and medical experts! I am worth risking being wrong because I do not want to be inconvenienced.” Once masks became required, my hatred shifted to those wearing bright red hats and MAGA face masks. I glared at these people with such force that they must have felt my judgment burning tiny holes into their shirts. Had they actually acknowledged my spiteful glare, I’m sure I would have responded with an expletive laced tirade I would have regretted.
I repeat this experience when confronting those without masks at the coffee shop or in red hats at the post office. When I see large groups of mask-less teenagers roaming our small downtown and going in and out of shops. When I see graduation and Halloween parties taking place inside and outside our neighbors’ homes, when there are large groups with few in masks. When I see introduction of a Supreme Court nominee in a Rose Garden where no one wears masks.
I do not like this person I am becoming. I’ve always considered myself open minded and assumed the best of intentions in the actions of others. I enjoyed polite and respectful debates and could even be convinced to change my mind. But 2020 seems to be eroding this part of me. I have no patience for conspiracy theories. Those protesting face mask requirements who claim to be worried about their “rights”? Do they even understand what their rights are? Do those who scream “All Lives Matter” really fail to see that “Yes, in fact, that is the point, ALL lives matter, including black lives”?
Is this just some primitive survival instinct kicking in? By focusing on what I think is right, do I feel like I am controlling this uncontrollable virus, uncontrollable social angst and uncontrollable political system? Do I so strongly believe that if everyone would just do what is right, what I think is right, we could get through this, and if we don’t, I can point the finger at others?
When this all passes and life settles into a new normal, will I stop feeling this way, or are habits becoming so ingrained they are morphing into life style choices? Will I be like Aunt Emma and defined by the habits cultivated during this formative time? Will I pick my acquaintances in the future based on political affiliations instead of who makes me laugh and I have a good time with? Will I decide that those who disagree with me are fundamentally flawed? Will I hoard news stories supporting my point of view? Will my evolution be stunted? Will the light fail to permeate me and instead my world will only be cast in shades of grey?
Angela Kidd is a writer, runner, recovering attorney, wife and mother. She has been published in Motherwell, Like the Wind Magazine, The Women Who Roar, LitroNY and Art in a Time of Covid.