I like to ask my Grandma Marilyn questions.
She’s nearly 90 and has a memory like an elephant. This works well for me: the curious granddaughter who sorts through the past like an archaeologist. Searching for bones buried beneath sand.
Whenever I start with my inquisitions, Grandma is hesitant.
“Now why are you askin’ me that?” she pushes back.
But then I’ll get her going, and we’re off to the races. It helps if she’s had a beer or two.
“So, listen to this…” she’ll start. I settle into my role as a sponge, sopping up her stories like sudsy water.
Marilyn is more sass than sweet. A broad-shouldered beauty who dyes her hair blonde from a Clairol box and makes the best chocolate chip cookies this side of the Mississippi. She wears oversized sunglasses and cream-colored leggings. She loves Sonic Drive-In.
“Their hot dogs are delicious; you ever try one?” she asked me on Christmas.
She almost lost it when Minnesota football was postponed due to the pandemic.
“What am I going to do?” she moaned. “Don’t you dare bury me during football season.” I can see her wearing a purple Vikings sweatshirt in her mauve-coated living room, her eyebrows knitted with needles of concern.
I envision being a grandma like her one day.
Maybe my granddaughter will ask me questions about this past year.
“What was it like?” she’ll wonder. “To have everything shut down?”
I’ll answer the only way I know how: “Nothing was at it once seemed.”
I’ll tell her that our normal routines became a rabbit hole of random. We were all Alice, falling down into a weird wonderland where everything was topsy-turvy.
Places that were open were now closed.
People that were healthy turned sick.
Classrooms were empty. Movie theatres were barren. Restaurants resembled ghost towns. Playgrounds were wrapped in yellow caution tape like a crime scene.
The everyday sounds of life no longer served as a steady soundtrack of busy, bustling, packed. It was silent. Still. Quiet.
But not the hospitals.
Emergency rooms became alarm clocks, waking us all to life’s fragility. Like a loud beeping that disturbs our life slumbers, the ER screamed, “THIS IS WHAT MATTERS. THIS IS WHO MATTERS. LOOK. YOU MIGHT LOSE IT. SEE?”
The alarm clock of the emergency room blared for me this winter. It was cold. There was no snow on the ground. My mom was sick. She couldn’t breathe. Her doctor used scary words of suspicion, like “blood clots” and “pulmonary embolism.”
That's when I learned that the ER can force you to face the thoughts you don't want to think. Regrets rise to the surface like a buoy in the ocean. Real friends and support systems become clear. They’re the names you text when you’re worried that your world is going to fall apart.
“You cannot die,” I begged my mom, my brown eyes boring into hers though a phone screen. Maybe I was being dramatic. But the world was topsy-turvy now. I didn’t trust it.
She wore a thin, navy hospital gown dotted in geometric shapes. She sat alone on a twin bed surrounded by machines and creamsicle-colored walls.
“You’ve got to be around to go to TJ Maxx and maybe you'll have grandchildren and we can go on trips and who knows what else, I dunno,” I begged, thinking of all the things I haven’t done yet as the death numbers on the news scanned across my mind. I wanted to give her reasons to fight for her health.
“I’ll be OK, honey,” she promised.
Still, I was frantic. My shins hurt from kicking myself for everything I took for granted. The seconds that added up to minutes, hours, days, decades I thought I’d have forever. How foolish of me.
By the grace of God, my mom got better. And I got different. My perspective, anyway.
I think about those who have already experienced that type of loss. I wish I could give them words to heal the hurt, but I imagine it’s a forever-engrained bruise. The pain is always there. It aches more if you press on it.
I picture my future granddaughter asking me what else changed as we went further down, down, down the rabbit hole.
In the Wonderland of 2020, the little things became the big things since the little things were gone. Like hugging, or sitting in a restaurant booth, or walking into a grocery store with your nostrils exposed.
We got good at reading eyes.
Schedules morphed into excuses. Busy and overbooked suddenly diminished because what was there to do, go, see? The ocean of a pandemic crashed against our shorelines and left our priorities scattered on the beach like seashells. We had time to examine them now. We could decide if we wanted to pick them up and take them home, or leave them stagnant and still and ignored.
We make time for what matters.
Friends became twinkle lights. They shined brightest during the dark times of lonely and bored, adding even more sparkle and pizzazz to the humdrum and the mundane. Connection was a life raft. Letters, cards, texts, FaceTime, Zoom, cinnamon tea in paper cups, wine bottles on the front steps, cheesecake left by the front door: it all meant the same thing: I’m here. I see you. I care.
I’d tell my granddaughter that 2020 was weird.
“Write that down,” I’d urge. “It. Was. Weird.”
As I sit on my couch tonight—back to being the inquisitive granddaughter—I look at pictures of my grandma. I trace the lines that tell tales of a past that created my future. We are separated by the miles between Minnesota and Michigan and decades of wisdom. Her life choices led to my existence.
She’s a walking history book. Her full life has become a library of lessons. She’s added the 2020 chapter to her life story.
We all have.
“You know,” my grandma once said to me, her confident voice crackling in my ear as she sat on her leather couch in the house that holds a thousand memories for me. “Since I live alone, I spend a lot of time thinking about the past. I replay the stories over and over in my mind.”
Our present is the future history. These memories of 2020 will get replayed in our minds as the years stretch beyond the here and now. May we remember it all, even the weird.
When we are nearly 90 and our grandchildren ask us questions, we can say, “So, listen to this…”