Even in a panic, nobody wants lima beans, a phenomenon I observed as I was looking for black beans and red kidneys. I know I’m not the only one who noticed because, without me saying a word, my sister’s brother-in-law sent her a telltale photo from a grocery store in Kentucky, which totally supports my point. But I’m starting in the middle of the story, so perhaps I should rewind to Thursday afternoon, March 12, 2020.
When we got the news that BYU was closing for the coronavirus, my daughter, Abby, and I headed to Provo for our weekly dinner with Chase, our computery BYU student and resident smart aleck, hoping to entice him to pack up his hard drive and head home with us. I knew it was a fool’s errand, mom and sister simply cannot compete with girls, girls, girls, and other assorted friends. But I did extract a promise that if the party ponies ever evacuated, he would call and I would drop everything to go get him, dirty socks and everything. By the time we were driving home it was getting late and I was tired, but Abby was busily reading every coronastory as it broke. She called Porter, who was home because all school activities, including play rehearsals had been cancelled.
“We’re picking you up in an hour and going to the store.”
“Why am I going?” he asked disconsolately.
“Because everyone is doing panic buying, so we’re going to do some panic buying too. It will be fun.”
I needed fruit, bread, cilantro, and serrano peppers. Two stores, and $200 later, I had a trunkful of supplies, but not a single roll of toilet paper. This worried Abby a great deal.
I’ve always wondered what a run on the grocery store would look like, and now I know. Long lines, empty shelves, little bread, no hamburger or chicken breast, just to name a few. My friend, Holly, came home with an unfamiliar brand which her son pulled from the bag with a raised eyebrow, “Is this apocalypse bread?” My sister, Natalie, says they’re a house divided between serious germaphobia, and the thrill of a get out of school free card, but everyone agrees on hating the lowly limas.
By the time we got home that night, I was down to my last joule of energy. I did manage a cursory and fruitless search for toilet paper on the internet, and even went through the house counting how many rolls we had on hand to reassure Abby that we weren’t quite on the verge of corncobs and newspaper. Then I dropped into bed without remembering to set my alarm. Luckily, I awoke at 5:30 a.m. anyway, soon to be joined by Abby who had not stopped searching.
“HomeDepot.com has industrial rolls of toilet paper, 1-ply or 2?”
Crisis averted, Abby had found the thing she needed to face the challenge with peace and aplomb. Call it a teddy bear, but we all have something we need to ease our way in a hard moment. I have a sneaking suspicion mine might include fresh onions and tomatoes because we blow through them so fast, and I’m never entirely settled unless we have them in the house. The Night of the Store when the smart people were going for canned goods, I had to have a big bag of each. Apparently, no one is comforted by lima beans, which tells me we’re not so much scared of impending starvation, as we are anxious to preserve as much as possible of our normal lives.
Like many of us, I’ve been following the press, trying to gather all the information I need to protect my loved ones. But as one who has been through a trial or two, I’m going to point out something all of us already know, but don’t like to think about. We will do our best to cross our Ts and dot our Is, and when there’s nothing more we can do, our control completely ends. After that the bad thing will happen or it won’t, and then we must gather the tools to face whatever the next phase brings. I won’t tell anyone to be fearless, because that would definitely be the pot calling the kettle black. We know Covid-19 is easily transmittable, and a minor inconvenience for most people, but it can be life threatening for certain vulnerable populations. Even if you aren’t so vulnerable yourself, you assuredly have dear ones who are, so no one is really exempt. I haven’t mastered the art of fearlessness myself, especially when there is so much to lose, but I have learned a little about facing disaster, which is why I’m going to do all I can, then turn up the music and dance around my house for at least twenty minutes. Trouble never knocks without a fine gift tucked under its arm, because misfortune and blessings are a symbiotic pair, and cannot be separated. I don’t know what your gift might be, but I’m looking around and thinking, wow, so much has been cancelled, maybe it’s time to take a breath, reconnect, play a board game, write a story, or make food I’ve always wanted to try once, and possibly never again. Maybe something with lima beans.
I have many questions about coronavirus, but there is one in particular that no reports have fully addressed. I want to know what could possibly end the pandemic? I’ve read everything I could find and couldn’t come up with a whole theory, so I started reading up on the Spanish flu of 1918-19, which actually originated in China, and the medieval Black Death, which did as well. I won’t give dates for the plague, because after that nasty first hundred years that cost Europe and Asia 40%-60% of the population, it kept coming back and back and back on a fifteen- or twenty-year cycle for another hundred years or so, then kept popping out like a jack-in-the-box well into the 19th century. Reading about past plagues can be a smidge disheartening, and I still don’t have my answers.
I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit how much I already knew about the Black Death, a morbid interest that over the years has led me to read a book or two and watch whatever documentaries I might come across. Always eager to share with my children, I once cheerfully regaled them with many fun facts about the Black Plague, totally oblivious to the lunch we were eating. It’s been ten years, and they still won’t let me live it down.
The frustrating thing about studying the Black Death is that too few people thought to write their experiences down. We do have some, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales being a notable example of literary fiction, depicting ordinary lives lived in the time of plague. There are a number of valuable personal accounts, but nothing like there could have been, given the scope of events. Of course, that was partly a literacy issue. Too many couldn’t write, or wouldn’t have had money for paper, even if they could. Most of the eye-witness reports that survive are from the wealthier classes, and precious little from the less fancy. Fortunately, time has marched, and not only can the majority of us read and write, but paper is no longer an issue.
Covid-19 is a far cry from the Black Death, but before you collapse into bed at night, it might be a good idea to write down a sentence or two, once a day, or maybe a paragraph a week, no pressure to produce the next great masterpiece. Just get your thoughts down because you never know how prized your voice might be to future generations, not just about today’s pandemic, but as a record of your life and the world you live in, because the world you live in is going to vanish right before your eyes. Just ask your grandparents, they’ve already seen it happen.
I once read a book called Growing Up in the 1850s, which is the diary of Eleanor Agnes Lee, fifth child of General Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate States Army, and President Abraham Lincoln’s first choice to lead the North in the Civil War. But when little Eleanor started her diary in 1852 at age twelve, she had no notion of the astounding events that would overtake her life in the 1860s. Her father was respected, but not famous, and she considered her life placid and ordinary. In 1853 she wrote, “The everyday life of a little school girl of twelve is not startling,” but she was mistaken. I remember the moment she casually mentioned that Mr. and Mrs. Pierce came by in their carriage. That would be President Franklin Pierce and Mrs. First Lady. This was not a grand occasion requiring planning and preparation, just friends dropping by for a sandwich and a little chatter on a pleasant afternoon.
Today we can’t imagine a president without an armored limousine, and hordes of secret service. She, on the other hand, could never have imagined a world in which the president could not drive his own open carriage on a fine day. Beginning in 1852 a little girl of no particular note began taking five years-worth of snapshots, documenting her world with the most ordinary of ink, and creating a priceless record that is still relevant today. It’s been nearly thirty years since I read it, but all this time later it’s still in print. I know that because I couldn’t find my copy, so I was reduced to looking it up on Amazon to make sure I spelled her name correctly. That kind of commercial longevity doesn’t happen if no one cares to buy it, with the apparent exception of lima beans.
We don’t need famous parents to write about Covid-19, or the Twin Towers, or the lady in the eggplant dress who made the elevator smell like garlic. We’re ordinary people living in extraordinary times, and one day people will want to know about it, big stuff and small, because they will be able to see, as we sometimes cannot, that ordinary lives are, in truth, extraordinarily interesting. Let’s not make our descendants fill in the blanks for themselves, because in the distant future some clever archeologist may uncover a set of esoteric fragments from a dig site deep in the desert, and in the absence of our voices, may publish a groundbreaking paper stating he has discovered a primitive people who loved lima beans, and made sacrifices to a previously unknown god named Toilet Paper.
We really need to set the record straight.