My mother was a worrier.
She worried in the way that a bird builds its nest, part instinct, part purposeful endeavor. The worries formed a web of protection around those whom she loved. A web like that of a spider that grows from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of silk. Spreads wide over everything that feels uncontrollable, uncontainable. Only her continual anticipatory caution kept disaster netted at the edges of perception.
A habit of mind? A genetic quirk? A prayer that never ceases?
I was five years old when the polio outbreak began. I would sit on the tile floor of my grandmother’s sunporch, scribbling in my Big Chief tablet while the adults, chatting nearby, switched from English into French to discuss what they didn’t want me to hear. Names swam up out of the rhythmic flow, familiar names—of friends’ children who had become sick, I learned later.
I can only imagine my mother’s inner terror. No one knew how the illness was spread, Was it from flies lighting on a piece of fruit, on a sandwich? Did the virus lie in wait on the doorknob of the supermarket?
Ne touche pas! became a litany that required no church. Wash your hands! Do not touch your face! I thought it was a matter of deportment. Proper little girls were not to fidget. They were to fold their hands neatly in their laps and be quiet. They were to be clean and neat at all times, vigilantly observed by their elders.
How frightened she must have been. How restive I was at the restriction.
Is it a requirement of youth to rebel against limits whose purpose and rationale they don’t understand?
Six years passed before the Salk vaccine arrived. Six years of ordinary life with an avalanche looming. The mothers then were tough. They’d endured and survived an even longer period of world war with familial deaths, rationing and privation, and Victory Gardens, a nation pulling together to defeat an enemy they could visualize.
Polio was a hidden enemy and it had a specific cruelty, because it focused on children. There is no fear like the fear of harm to your little ones. And yet part of a parent’s job is to prevent such harm. The reflexes are in place. The fear of polio merely expanded and intensified the need to be on guard.
The Novel Coronavirus that we face at this moment seems to spare children. In exchange, we believe that it imperils our mothers and fathers and grandparents. To protect them, we are asked to accept disruptive limits to our lives in every aspect.
We are asked to accept a drop in income, a denial of pleasure, a disturbance of the process and conditions of our work—all to diminish a deadly outcome we cannot yet visualize.
We are taking these steps based on faith, a faith we share in the knowledge of scientific experts, whom we are never more aware of needing than at a time of crisis.
But it is a faith we share in the goodness of our neighbors, too.
Our local businesses, our neighbors’ livelihoods, are taking a serious hit from the numerous cancellations. We need to patronize their businesses.
We need to order takeout when we are social distancing; we need to find a way to visit the grocery store without exposing our elders to higher risk. (Maybe the local smaller stores can offer telephone orders for pickup.)
To feel secure in patronizing local business, we need to have faith that they’re taking this crisis as seriously as we are. That they are committed to the high standards required to minimize the spread of the virus.
That includes requiring workers involved with food service to stay home at the first sign of a respiratory symptom.
If a local fund is needed to help businesses implement these extraordinary measures, I would certainly contribute to it. And I suspect many others would join me.
(This post appeared as a column in the Fayette County Record in March, 2020.)