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Spring/Summer 2021

Sugar and Salt

Elaine Monaghan

            Granny, I wish you were here. I’ve so much to ask you, and a lot to tell. I’m sorry it’s not all good. I’m not doing so well, and neither is my family, or anyone, really. But you taught me that if I wait for the rain to stop, I’ll never go outside. I can hear you warble, even now, “You’re not made of sugar or salt!”

I need to tell you that I’ve come down with a sickness, the kind that means I can’t go out. My doctor thinks I’ve got a new virus born in China in late 2019 that is spreading like a spider’s web around the globe, making a pandemic like the Spanish flu. I suppose it’s like after the war, when you shut my two uncles in a room for months, in Edinburgh. Mum was only barely aware of them before they got tuberculosis, just like Grampers did. She remembers not being allowed even to peek through the door at her siblings, and a long period when she could only see her Dad through a fence at a special hospital or camp after he came back from fighting Hitler in France. It all seemed like such an alien notion to me, until a few weeks ago.

What I really want to know is, were you scared? How did you hide it from the kids? I can’t ask Mum, even though I have lots of ways to talk with her now despite being in the American Midwest. She lives alone, in North Berwick, where we all used to go putting by the sea, and has enough to deal with, since she mostly has to stay inside. At least she’ll still be able to walk along the beach at sunrise and watch the seabirds bobbing along next to the rocks, and feel the salt air in her hair and the wind on her cheeks and the rough grass on the edge of the golf course spring up beneath her walking boots. No one gets up as early as she does. Staying away from people should be easy. She’s high risk. She just had a mastectomy and this virus—it’s a new coronavirus; they call it COVID-19—hits the over 70s hardest. But she sent me a photo by phone the other day (yes, we can do that), showing herself and her friends on a mossy picnic bench somewhere in the woods, with wooly hats and big grins and bottles of French wine and maybe baguette and pâté, having a blast. Later she sent me a photo of the floor plan of her small flat and the comment: “Travel planning for this weekend,” after the British prime minister asked everyone to stay inside except when absolutely unavoidable and ordered people to stop traveling—especially those over 70. They’ve closed the pubs, imagine that. Mum responded with a message to my sisters and me. I still can’t figure out if it’s panic-stricken, ironic, or both.

Her plan for coping with “involuntary incarceration as a 75-year-old single woman,” she wrote, would include checking for a suicide tablet in a “welcome to insanity box” she was anticipating receiving from the government—bear in this mind this was before they clarified the over 70s would be allowed out at all—and forming a daily plan to cover 15 hours or so of indoor activities which could include mugging up on her French, cleaning windows, memorizing the names of the islands of the world and rationing her thinking in order to avert any need for the aforementioned tablet. She said she also planned to “thank the patriarchy” for taking care of her and that she fully appreciated this was “for her own good” and not connected at all to the fact she would be a “bastard of another effin bedblocker a couple of years earlier than otherwise necessary.” Yes, I know, terrible language, but these are terrible times.

Did you have trouble sleeping? Or did your endless darning and knitting and cooking and washing and rationing stop you from worrying while Grampers was away and the kids got sick? Do you think I need to start saving everything, like you did long after the war ended, carefully washing every piece of tinfoil, layering it in that drawer in your kitchen on Burnside, and reusing it until it fell apart? As someone who had to manage on half a pound of sugar a week from January 1940 until rationing ended in 1953, which wasn’t a lot with six kids and no prepackaged food, you’ll be amused to hear that Americans are obsessed with not eating sugar in 2020. That’s maybe the only thing you had to deal with that would come easy right now.

I bought a pound of sugar this week, first time in ages, and placed it carefully beside the box of salt just in case. Maybe it will still be there in 2021. We don’t need sugar, but we certainly need salt, right? I bet you said that, once at least.

You were nice to us, but I’m not sure you were so nice to Mum, Granny. I guess you didn’t know any better. She remembers getting skelped for ripping her school uniform after running for the school bus and falling off it because she was afraid of getting skelped for missing the bus. I bet it wasn’t the first or the last time.

I think Grampers wasn’t very nice to you, either, when he was younger; but he was a good grandfather. I bet I know what he would do for my two teens: He’d smooth down his hair, smile sweetly, take their hands and play cards. When I got old enough to start asking him questions about the war, he only told me the story about turning his comrade over in the water and his limb falling off once, and I had to squeeze it out of him. He made it sound pretty great, really, seeing Edith Piaf sing in Paris, getting his Croix de Guerre from Charles de Gaulle for staying at his radar post as long as he could after the Germans attacked his destroyer in the English Channel. I used to love it when he played Piaf on the record player. Maybe it was when one of you would get out the cheese biscuits and snacks and drinks for elevenses, and you had to tell him that 11 a.m. was really too early for the generous portions of sherry in the fancy blue glasses you’d clutch in increasingly knobbly hands in the early evening. Then we’d sit down to play that card game “Oh Hell,” and Grampers would draw lines down the paper and keep score with tiny, cursive script. We were allowed to say “Oh Hell!” if we lost a hand, and Grampers would grin that big handsome grin of his, thick, grey hair always neatly combed firmly to one side and held in place with a heavy dose of Brylcreem. Every now and then a strand would break loose and he’d grab it between broad, manicured fingers and put it firmly back in place. He was always smiling, or laughing, and kind to me, like that day when I was 16 and the dentist drilled and dug and eventually rammed his foot on the side of my chair to yank my impacted wisdom teeth out of my gums with only local anesthetic. Grampers held my hand as we walked silently to the car. I can remember that feeling of the hard pad of his finger gently drawing circles on my palm. I didn’t care who saw.

Sometimes he would sing rude songs in French—you never approved—but the song I most associate with him would come out of the old record player, the classic Piaf: “Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien!  I loved that my school French helped me understand the words. “No, absolutely nothing, no, I regret nothing!” Now I know it was a farewell to past loves and an embrace of a new one; but then it was a giant rebuke to the universe, an anthem to the heroic women and men who had fought and resisted the Nazis.

I’m trying really hard not to be scared, Granny, especially for Jack and Cara. Jack had his birthday this week. “Sixteen in Quarantine,” we joked. He’s handsome and lean and tall with thick, straight, dark hair, and good at French and mathematics and cards just like Grampers, even though he thinks he is none of these things. When he breaks out in a smile, it takes your breath away, and his sleight of hand impresses all his friends. He maybe has a girlfriend, but of course now he won’t be able to see her, who knows for how long, because the virus might not be done with us for months and we’re trying to prevent thousands upon thousands of people clamoring simultaneously for help at the hospitals, gasping at the doors.

Cara is 13, the age you were when you, as a single, illegitimate child, whose father we have yet to identify, left school and first went to work all those years ago. This morning she reminded me so much of you, as she stirred vegetable oil into a prepared cake mix to make brownies, though of course you’d have done it from scratch. She reads all the time, and when she’s not doing that, she sings and plays piano and ukulele or talks to her friends on the phone. She will not be made to perform like I had to at family gatherings, though; I have to grab what pleasure I can from the melodies that rise through the ventilation shafts from the basement. Yesterday they announced school was suspended and she was whirling around the kitchen, whispering, “I won. I won.” She’s been begging to be home schooled for months. She hates school, can’t stand the racists and the haters and the sexist dress code. “I don’t want to see any straps,” her choir teacher told her after distributing off-the-shoulder leotards for them to wear with their star-spangled skirts. She quit choir and reads books instead.

These days teens have a lot more autonomy, I think. I’m not sure you’d approve. I mean, when Mum got pregnant at 16 you made her go away for the summer, and took her baby away from her, when she was so young and so vulnerable. You could have raised him, Granny. He was only six or seven years younger than your youngest child. But you’ll be pleased to know he found us after he turned 40 and was at our wedding in Edinburgh. He got the virus and recovered already. Good genes, I guess. His name is Stuart and he looks just like your sons, and Mum, of course.

Cara is way taller than you already, with your bird-like quality and curly hair—though she straightens it every morning—slender ankles and wrists, and so pale. She spends all her time doing theatre, and wants to be on Broadway. Lee, her Dad, spoils her. I wish you could have met, but you died right after I moved to Washington and he and I got together. He’s a lanky New Yorker with a big brain, a public servant’s mindset and a soft voice.

Right now, he’s rearranging the furniture in the living room. It usually means he’s anxious. The TV is on in the background and the American president is railing at a journalist, like most days, though I wish they wouldn’t keep showing it, because what’s the point? We knew he was awful when he got elected four years ago. Oh God, I forgot to mention—his mother was Scottish. It’s a great source of shame. And imagine, he owns a golf course near Aberdeen. I can’t stand it. Paradoxically, they say he’s a germophobe. A 21st century germophobe who lies about the ability of germs to travel the globe, and downplayed a new virus that has now become a pandemic. We just have 15 cases, he said three weeks ago, and they’ll soon be gone, which was completely untrue, and while cases everywhere else were rising steadily, like his neofascist DNA was coronavirus-resistant, or something. White people germs don’t count, I guess. Now a third of America is under orders to stay home, we have thousands of cases, and we can’t see the peak of the hill yet. Yes, I know.

I wish I could ask you the best approach to this sickness, which probably started a month ago with a fever and a cough that made me hack like a coal miner and left me horizontal for days. I cancelled my reporting class for the first time since I started teaching journalism here in Indiana nearly six years ago. (Yes, I’ve stopped moving country every two years. Imagine that: I learned all those languages—even the Russian and German that made you frown just a little—became a foreign correspondent, and now I am living in America. But as Churchill used to say, two countries separated by a common language…)

I think I took something for the fever, but I’m not sure. I remember I went to the Chinese carryout in solidarity because I was too sick to cook and thank goodness they were wearing gloves and they all kept their distance, as did I, and they looked at me a bit funny. I wasn’t overly worried then: the government wasn’t telling us we had anything to worry about.

 In fact, the week I got sick, and the Third Street clinic tested me for flu—it was negative—and told me to just go home and come back if I got appreciably worse, while cheerfully informing me an “entire sorority” had been in a couple of days before, all of them sick, our president held a giant campaign rally in New Hampshire and said the virus would mysteriously disappear in April. Two weeks later, he said his opponents were using it as a political weapon, and that it was their new “hoax.” He calls journalists the enemy of the people, Granny, even though the real enemies are trolls who use all kinds of fake stories to try to disrupt our lives as much as possible. Can you imagine? It’s just like the 1950s, and McCarthy’s red scare. Sometimes I think the real enemy is in the White House and surely someone will get him removed from office. But everyone tiptoes around him, because they’re so scared he’ll get rid of the experts who actually know how to fight this virus, and then there will be no hope for us.

I am trying hard not to be scared, but I worry for my students every day, especially the ones going home to grandparents and other vulnerable people. But I don’t know what to do.

But maybe you would know? What should I tell them? I mean, do you think I should really keep Jack and Cara away from me, even though the doctor says there’s no point? I would have been infectious even before I got sick and so it’s too late, he says.

Granny, they have tests for this thing, and blue pills so men can have sex forever, and they have self-driving cars and ways for us to talk to each other remotely, face to face, and a massive airline industry that is why this virus became a pandemic in just a few weeks and which collapsed just as fast. But I couldn’t get a test even though my doctor wanted to get me one, and neither can Lee, and he is sick and has asthma, and Jack has asthma, and Cara got sick with swine flu when she was little and landed up in hospital, and I have a thyroid thing and maybe that counts as an underlying condition but I’m not sure. Thank God children don’t get this, mostly.

They don’t have enough ventilators. The elderly are dying by the thousand in Lombardy. They line them up in the corridors, and the gunk that bubbles out of their intubation tubes is pink because they’re bleeding inside.

We don’t know yet how many people this sickness kills, but it’s probably about one or two percent—but we can’t be sure because we just don’t know how many people have already had it. And we don’t know how long it can last or if you can get it more than once. I think I’ve either had it twice, or once for over a month. Bryony has it now. She has asthma now, my baby sister, 18 months younger. She is helping repurpose the schools in her area for childcare for the thousands of healthcare workers who need it. I am so proud of her. And you know, worried. She says she’s at a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, though at least she has the National Health Service, while we’re stuck with an understaffed hospital and a system that leaves people to die at the doors. She’s pretty much where I was about 10 days ago, after I’d shaken off that initial bout, or thought I had, because I only had a bit of a residual cough, and noticed I couldn’t quite fill my lungs. I’d get breathless, too, and the cough started to get worse again.

After I started to get worse again, and I felt like someone was sitting on my chest, I sent a message to my doctor, and he told me to go get an x-ray. I got to the hospital at 6 a.m., I was so worried about making other people sick, and was the first one in the machine. I told them at the registration desk that I was concerned about the thousands of international students who were in the process of being sent home because we were beginning to close the campus, to China and South Korea where the virus first got bad, and the waves of students who would have come from there in late December and early January, and the ones who got evacuated from hotspots before it reached us, and surely didn’t adhere to their 14-day quarantine because they think they’re going to live forever, and she just waved me on because I’d not traveled overseas in the last 21 days and I couldn’t prove anyone I know had it because there are no tests. I told the young woman at the x-ray of my concerns, and she was disinfecting carefully, and I was touching nothing without covering my hands. The x-ray was clear, thank goodness, so at least I knew I didn’t have pneumonia, which means it’s serious. Lee went the next day. His was clear, too, but he still has a terrible cough so he wore a mask. A lot of people are wearing masks these days.

When he heard Lee had a cough, the doctor told us to stay home. It wasn’t your typical message. It was probably a bit like those telegrams people got, or at least that’s how I imagine it.

“I am concerned that this could indeed be COVID-19 affecting each of you, and would advise that your quarantine yourselves, immediately,” he wrote. And that’s when the nightmare became real.

“We do not have testing available yet, but we are told there should be more testing available next week (we will see). The handful of tests available in Indiana are only being used on the critically ill and nursing home patients. This will hopefully change next week.”

The only thing that changed was that I got sicker, and a lot more scared. In fact, for a couple of days, well, honestly, I thought I might not make it. But I only told Lee that, when I told him where I want to be buried, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

At one point I had a rash on my chest. It came and went in a couple of hours. In the interim, since my breathing was all over the place again, I was panic-stricken. I called the doctor, but he said we should only go to the ER if we had significant difficulty breathing. I said I kind of already did, and what did significant mean. He said I had to feel “desperately short of breath.”

What if it happened to us both at the same time? It won’t, he said.

The worst thing was telling the kids they couldn’t go out. It took them a few days before they could accept it, especially Jack, because of his birthday, and his friends, and Cara is mostly worried she might kill her asthmatic father. Eight days later, we’re all taking quarantine in our stride, especially now I’m feeling better, though the kids pretend they are not worried about me. “You don’t have coronavirus,” they say to me, like I’ve lost my mind.

They say I shout a lot, and get annoyed with me because I shout at them to get back when they come in the laundry room and I’m disinfecting the groceries. I think maybe Lee’s the sugar and I’m the salt.

So, I didn’t tell them about how my limbs felt like lead, how the virus seemed to be traveling around my body, searching for somewhere to take hold, scrabbling around in my throat and around my thyroid, sending its tentacles up and down my limbs and into the depths of my lungs and making my left arm ache for two days straight. I don’t tell them how I sometimes couldn’t think of words, how much it hurt to breathe in, how just yesterday I had a relapse and was all out of breath again, how my diaphragm sometimes feels like it’s turned to stone and how my lungs feel like someone has cooked them a bit in the microwave and I’m not sure they’ll ever go back to normal.

But Granny, the other morning, I woke up on the sofa—I’m keeping away from Lee—felt no pain in my lungs, and saw my left arm. It was bent at a soft angle, bare and vulnerable, my elbow peeking above the covers. I stroked it for a while, just enjoying the sensation of no pain in that limb. My chest was still tight, but the scrabbling pain throughout my body was gone. The virus was not done with me yet, but that morning brought a few hours of peace.

The sun was up. It was just me and the birds. They’ve been dying out by the million, because of us. I remembered how a few weeks ago, before this all began, a little American robin flew thwack into the front window, despite the maple leaf stickers I put there to warn them, just as I was sitting down to write. I crept out the front of the house, ready to rescue it like we did the fledglings in the nest that fell off the eaves last summer. I observed it motionless, afraid I would scare it further. It made me sick to my stomach, to watch it sit there on the porch, shivering slightly, head down, heart going like mine did when the virus was bad, 140 beats per minute. It was trying to find its bearings, to summon the strength to get up and fly again.

After a few minutes it hopped away, and flew into the sky. But Granny, it looked sort of bedraggled, a little flawed, like so many of our birds these days. Our fumes have mangled their DNA, and our lights have interrupted their pathways, and don’t ask about the bees, because it would break your heart.

I thought of that bird that morning, after I felt the air enter my lungs with no sharp pain. I needed to be outside.

So, I lifted myself up slowly from the sofa, and rested my feet on the floor. No dizziness. No racing heart rate. The breathing continued as normal. My lungs felt a little less rigid. Walking seemed safe.

I made my way out of the living room to the dining room, past the big, oval table where I like to write, and the shelves with precious objects—framed shots of Jack when he was little in a hammock with Mum, Cara’s face the moment she learned to ride a bike, your metal teapot, all blackened with age, the entire works of Seamus Heaney. I opened the front door slowly, its frame adjacent to the big picture window where the bird had nearly broken its neck, quietly because I didn’t want to wake anyone.

I padded slowly past the daffodil bulbs, which would soon burst into life, and found a spot right beside the American holly tree, where the birds love to perch. They eat the red berries like the ones on the holly you used to decorate your famous Christmas cake. Just a few weeks ago, the birds seemed to be singing a constant song of mourning for themselves. Now it seemed more like a song of triumph and urgency. We warned you. You didn’t listen. Get up, get up! This, this is your last chance!

The hourly ambulance sirens had not yet begun to send a shiver of dread through our little town; I knew we would soon be counting up the dying and the dead. The yellow tent was not yet built outside the hospital to accommodate the people turning up still able to walk but desperate to be tested or just to get some kind of care because they feared the worst. It was quiet, the kind of quiet we only used to hear at night, before the neighborhood dogs start barking, before the drone of cars racing along Third Street to work, before the yellow school buses start their far-too-early trips to take children to schools so the parents can work far too long.

Granny, it was so quiet, the way it used to be when I was little and we would build a tent in your back garden to sleep, because there weren’t enough bedrooms for everyone who came to visit, or just for fun, and we would wake up to insects crawling on the flap and the smell of uncut grass. I felt a wave of gratitude for this sickness, even for the pain it had wrought on the inside of my body, even if it meant I would never again be able to walk fast through the neighborhood, jog along the beach by the Firth of Forth or climb up Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. I thought about your words, about sugar and salt, blood and tears, sweat and pain; about music and love and life and death. I thought about Grampers’ kindness, and Mum’s resilience, my wonderful sisters, and my beautiful brother, and wondered when I would see them again.

There was a slight breeze, not like in Scotland, where the wind can bend you over, make rain go horizontal, and send clouds whirling. I miss that so much, the animated sky, and the smell of the sea. I hate how the clouds just hang here in the Midwest.

But that morning, I noticed that I felt different in my skin, better. I didn’t dwell on the things that usually make me homesick. I heard the birds, but didn’t think of the plump, fluffy robins we have in Scotland, the kind you see on Christmas cards. The skinny American robins were more than enough.

I stood there for what seemed like a long time. I raised my right hand to my face, skin on skin, and let it rest there, felt the pleasantly cooled, waterproof surface, and the cheekbone under my fingertips. I thought of the people we now really know we cannot live without, the pharmacists and the teachers and the doctors and the nurses, the grocery store workers, the trash collectors, the poets, the cleaners and the musicians. And yes, the writers. I thought about the wisdom of all our precious grandparents.

I prayed that after the virus is done with us, and the earth’s winds have blown its spider’s web away, when we have mourned those we must mourn, and taken off our masks, that we will see, and hear, and be happy to know, that none of us is the same.

[Check out Elaine Monaghan's back porch advice]