Monday, March 29, 2021

My Soap Opera Pandemic

 You know those people who mastered baking sourdough bread during the early days of the pandemic, posting on Instagram a line-up of top-browned mouth-watering loaves? Or, those who took to the garden, posting a beautiful arrangement of flowers “straight from the soil out front.” One friend posted the impressive number of miles she’d logged on her Peloton. Another, who kept a daily journal. “I’ve got enough to publish a book!”

 

I can boast of nothing close to these fine achievements during the lockdown. I must admit, I became a crashing bore riddled with anxiety that I’d catch the dreaded Covid virus. Worse, I became a cleaning addict. I mean, crazy time. My mother would say that it beats “hitting the sauce,” but my husband, Hank, might have argued when he woke at 4:30am one morning in April to the sound of me mopping the floors.

 

“What are you doing?” he asked, standing in the kitchen blurry-eyed.

 

“I couldn’t sleep, so I’m doing the floors.”

 

It started with Clorox Wipes. Six jumbo containers of wipes arriving in an Amazon box, twinkling as if they were rare jewels.  To me, they were. Grocery store shelves at that time were empty of Clorox anything. Random weird brands of bleach replaced them and only “1 per customer.” Like toilet paper, it was the big “get.”

 

Before the pandemic, I was always coming and going. I was at SoulCycle, perusing the cosmetic aisles at Bloomingdales, seeing friends, dining out with my husband when we were in town and planning Sunday night family dinners. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time at home and when I did, I didn’t focus on whether there was dust on baseboards in the living room or hard water spots on the shower door. During lockdown, we gave our housekeeper of eighteen years paid leave to stay safe and I’d walked into her job with gusto. 

 

Cleaning became my obsession, a way of control in a world that seemed out of control. The virus was raging. News was bleak, and there wasn’t a whole lot of guidance from the powers-that-be. Cleaning was a diversion. It was something constructive to do with all of that pent-up energy building inside me while trapped inside like a rat. Sure, I got outside with the bike, fresh air and all, yet while pedaling away in the neighborhood, I’d plot my next cleaning task. Hmmm, the shutters in the den. Have I tackled that since Sunday? 

 

Soon, Clorox wipes weren’t enough. It was an addiction. I searched on my computer and phone for stringer solutions and soon cleaning products popping up on my Instagram feed – that sneaky drug dealer whispering in me ear. I’ve got something better for you.

 

I swiped right up. Click to buy!

 

First it was the rubber gloves with little silicone spikes, claiming to get the grime with less elbow grease. Next, it was Clean Freak spray, followed by a silicone seal-in-a spray to coat my stainless steel to a shine. “Users claim their appliances “shine for a month; no finger prints!”

 

Instagram was on to me. New cleaning product ads flooding my feed daily. I swiped up and clicked. More! More!

 

Ultimately, I came upon what I thought was the couture of cleaning products - The Power Electric Spin Scrubber. “Scrub away, dirt, mildew, soap, burned messes, and hard water stains!”  I was in.

 


I set to work as soon as the box arrived, hitching up the elongated brush for those hard-to-reach areas in the shower. I was hooked, watching the whirl and the twirl of those pesky hard water spots disappear. Awww. Now, this is a cleaning tool. Three attachment brushes! 

 

“April,” I called my sister, “you’ve got to get one of these. You can’t believe how it works on grout.”

 

“Text me a picture of the box.”

 

Whoosh, off went a picture.

 

Seconds later, the phone rang.  “Heath, this chick on the box looks orgasmic. What the hell is this thing and what exactly is she using it to clean?”

 

I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt.

 

“I’m worried about you,” she said.  “Who gives a s**t if your tiles sparkle and your grout is clean. No one can come over!”

 

“Cleaning passes the time.”

 

“You need to calm down before your hardwood floors wear too thin.  This is getting weird.”

 

Days later, as I reached for my latest package of Swiffer Picker-Uppers to get a microbe of dust under the upright piano in the sunroom, I stopped myself. At this rate, I’ll be taking a Q-tip to the baseboards by next week. I put the package back. 

 

I stood in front of the cabinet, gazing at the plethora of cleaning supplies, my new Cadillac of a broom beaming back at me. All the disinfectant in the world wasn’t going to be able to clean up what was going on. I shut the cabinet door. My obsession was losing its luster. My sister was right. I was getting weird.

 

 

A year later, I remember the early days of the pandemic and wonder what I learned about myself. When I had time on my hands, did I really choose to while it away with a tile scrubber? Was my claim to fame a shiny floor that no one besides Hank would ever see?

I look down at my phone now. The Instagram ads have changed.

 

Interiors. Lipstick. Shoes. An occasional cleaning ad, BUG MD (to get rid of larvae) slips in, reminding me of my obsession during those months of Spring 2020.

 

But, the shallow me is back. Preferring pretty things to cleaning floors at 4:00am. 

 

Nope, I have no merits to boast of from my early days of the lockdown. Nothing besides sparkling tiles.

 

What I did learn, though, was that humor helped to heal my anxiety.  It was that tile scrubber box and April’s comments. I pulled the box out again the other day. She’s right: the woman looks like she’s on the verge of an orgasm. That moment was the game changer for me.

 

Thank you, April.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

What Happens Next


 

 

I pull into the narrow driveway leading to the entrance of the Westwood Memorial Cemetery. They’d been closed to visitors during the height of the pandemic but had recently re-opened. What’s with the locked gate?

 

I slip on my face-mask, grab the flowers I’d picked from our garden and step out of the car.  In life, she only appreciated flowers when they came from a man. Well, these would have to do.

 

I check to see if the gate is really locked and not just shut. Despite my pushing, it doesn’t budge. The posted sign reads: Due to Covid 19, restricted hours…So that’s why it’s locked. Still, according to the sign, the place should be open.

 

I stand in front of the gate masked with flowers in hand and I can’t get inside to my mother’s slot in the wall of the “Garden Gated Estates.” I feel like the character in the 1937 film “Stella Dallas,” where Stella’s peering through the window of her daughter’s wedding that she cannot attend.

 

Today is my mother’s birthday. She’d have been 93.

 

For Mom, birthdays were a big deal, planned way in advance. “I’m celebration-oriented,” she’d say. It was understood. You showed up for the birthday. 

 

Now what am I supposed to do? I can honor her anywhere on this day, but I feel closest to her here.  Back when she and her last husband, Dougie, the love of her life, got their plots, she was so excited. “It’s the best!” she said. “I’ll be among the movie stars! I always wanted to be one, but I was too lazy to trot the boards. Now, at least I’ll be among ‘em! Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemon, Natalie Wood! Did I mention Fannie Brice is around the corner? Not only her, but I hear Carol Burnett reserved a whole section for her family near us.”

 

Who gets this excited about a final resting place and their “neighbors?”

 

“I can’t wait for you to see it,” she said. “That’s our next field trip!”

 

 “The mortuary? To look at your empty slot?”

 

“Better when it’s empty, right?” 

 

After Dougie passed away, I took her to visit his slot in the wall. She always placed a manicured hand on his plaque, her signature long, orange-painted fingernails a sharp contrast to the somber brass plaque. “Love you,” she said. 

 

Noting her reserved spot beside him, she once turned to me. “Remember, I want ‘Ciao Bello’ inscribed on my plaque.”

 

“Talking about death doesn’t freak you out, does it?” I asked.

 

“Hell no. When you’re my age and your number’s up, your number’s up.”

 

Mom was such a larger-than-life character, such a huge part of my life that I started writing a memoir about her, about us, more than ten years ago.

 

“Mom, you have a minute?” I asked, back when I was writing the first draft. “I need to read these pages to you.”

 

She dropped everything. It was crucial for me to have her ear. After I finished each chapter, she said: “Hurry up and write the next one. I need to know what happens next?”

 

Now, I head back to my car. What happens next? I send a picture of the locked gate to my grown children and husband, Hank.  “I tried…”

 

I lean back against the headrest, staring at the gate. These are challenging times. Covid, so many deaths, unrest, job losses. My frustration today is nothing compared to what others are dealing with, but I’m still sad. I’d wanted to just stand and reflect with Mom close by, which is nothing, but it was my something on this day. To just show up for her on her birthday like I always have. Now I can’t. Tears well.

 

My phone lights up. It’s Allan, my oldest. “Mom, I’m so sorry that you can’t go in, but it’s so Nana! The irony of it.”

 

I dab at my damp cheeks.

 

“I mean, Mom, they’re opening restaurants after this epic shutdown and here, the cemetery, that’s outside, is closed! It’s outside! Certainly, a lot of social distancing going on there,” he laughs.

 

“And, no chance of catching Covid-19,” I smile, looking down at the facemask in my hand.  “Because everyone’s dead!” We both laugh. Mom would have loved that. “Always find the humor,” she told me.

 

“Don’t worry, Mom. You can still connect with Nana. Go to her favorite newsstand on San Vicente. She loved that place.”

 

“Oh my God, Allan. That guy who ran it loved Mom. He knew each tabloid she read and always, always, the two packs of Virginia Slim Menthols she ordered.  As soon as I pulled in, he’d see me, and grab the cigarettes and begin snapping up the magazines for her.”

 

“She made us all take her there.” Allan’s smile radiated through the phone line. 

 

The newsstand, though, shut down some time ago. I tell Allan this.

 

“You could go the Hank’s Liquor Store in Santa Monica,” he suggests, “that place on the corner where she’d sneak out of Sunrise Senior Living with her walker to get Advil and wine.”

 

I’m laughing so hard it takes two tries to click the seatbelt in place. I’m going to drive away and find some other way to connect with Mom. “I was at a business dinner in New York,” I tell him, “when I got the call. ‘Your mother escaped to the liquor store with another resident.’”

 

He laughs.

 

“She’d run off with a man, of course. There was always a man.” 

 

“You could go to her old house on Chalon Road,” Allan suggests.

 

“Naw, it’s all been redone. Nothing left of Mom there.”

 

“How about El Cholo, her favorite. You can saddle up to the bar, speak broken Spanish to all the waiters, and drink a marguerita.”

 

“So her!” I laugh. “Señor! Señor! In her gringo accent. They loved her there. But, it’s 2:00 in the afternoon, Al, I’m not a day drinker.”

 

I turn left onto Wilshire just like I’d do after I’d take Mom to visit Dougie in the wall. Next, the plan would be to have lunch in Brentwood and take a trip to Vicente Foods. 

 

“I know. I can do Vicente Foods, another of her haunts. And,” I add, “I’ll tip and compliment everybody like she did.” 

 

“Good enough.” he says, upbeat.  His voice turns somber. “I remember when I called her on her last birthday.” 

 

“She was pretty sick by then,” I say. “She died a month later.”

 

“Yeah,” he says. “I asked her how she was feeling, and she’d said: ‘Compared to what?’  God, she was something.”

 

“The one-liners, Al.”

 

“Always. Mom, Nana was the best.”

 

Later that evening, after an unsatisfying visit to Vicente Foods, an email pings in my in-box. I’ve been trying to find a publisher for my memoir for two years. Talked with agents and experts but little traction. Now, a publisher is writing to me. They want my book.

 

I’d stare in disbelief then, run into the den holding my laptop. “Hank, my book’s going to be published!” 

 

I don’t scream, I don’t cry tears of joy. It’s more disbelief. Is this real?

 

It’s was real, alright. On this day, her birthday, my mother shows me what happens next. 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

A Song for the Lifeboats

 

 

Holiday Cards looked a little different this year. Well, everything looked a little different this year. The cards ran the gamut. We received ‘Tis the weirdest season, 2020 Has Been Bananas, stay safe so that we can see eachother back in the jungle in 2021… We hope for a better year, and onewith the card-giver “distanced,” shouting “Merry Christmas!” through a megaphone. We all could use a laugh.

 

There were, of course, the Merry and Bright’s and the lovely Wishing You A Happy Holiday Season. And a Thomas Kincaid scene with glittery snow, wreaths on the lampposts – an old-fashioned card that brings comfort depicting old world innocence. 

 

For the first time in forty-one years, I’d planned not to send a card this year.  Why, I’d thought? Let’s just phone in Christmas and just get on with 2021.

 

Then, I got Janet’s card. It was a cut-out heart with a ribbon to hang as an ornament. I reached out to her to tell her how beautiful her card was and the message Give Thanks. On the reverse side, Count your blessings every day.

 

“I’m not doing cards this year,” I’d written.

 

“I hope you do,” she’d replied, “[It’s] a time when connections are more important than ever.”

 

Not this year, I’d sighed to myself. I’m just not into it.

 

Each day new cards arrived.  More messages of hope and compassion. We’re still here! So much love this Christmas. We wish you Hope and Peace.  More humorous messages. A picture of the sleeping family dog - Wake me when it’s over!  A picture of a family wearing face masks – Home for the Holidays! Some were spiritual, God’s Blessings to You. Cards from families who had moved and “Burgeoning Broods.” An engagement. A marriage. A water color rendition of a cozy cottage, painted by my artist friend, Betsy. 

 

And, of course, the holiday letters. Two wrote of many challenges they’d had this past year. “It definitely has been a time to reflect on what is important in life.” From another, after having survived Covid: “At least I have antibodies now. Useful given how far down the list I am for the vaccine, but happy to wait…”

 

A thick white envelope arrived mid-December from someone who had been on our list since our now thirty-one-year-old was in pre-school. Inside was a neatly tied bundle of our Christmas cards along with a message that they have enjoyed saving their friends cards all these years and (obviously Covid cleaning had gone on here), now they are giving them back for us to enjoy. 

 

I’d paused, standing at the kitchen island and sifted through the years of our family Christmas cards.  Always the message, Peace on Earth.

 

Voltaire had once mused that “life is a shipwreck, but that we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”


2020 has been a shipwreck.  

 

I reached for my phone and called my friend at Landis Stationery on Larchmont.  “Edie, what are the chances of getting a card done for New Years? Like fast.”

 

“What do you have in mind?”

 

“Something simple. I just need to sing.”

 

“Sing?”

 

 “It’s a Voltaire thing,” I laughed. “You know? People have suffered, it’s been hard for so many, I just wasn’t in the holiday spirit.”

 

“Ahhh. But you are now.”

 

“Yeah, Edie. I don’t know, getting these cards, they lifted me up. We’re still here!”

 

The new year has arrived. And, with the ball drop in a very different Times Square this year, we reflect on what has been, still is, and look to the future. There is hope. It’s out there. 

 

Singing in the lifeboats to land on a newfound shore that is 2021.