Signs of the times

A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.

She is making them.

She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.

Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.

When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?

When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.

These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.

As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:

You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …

Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.

A death year. 1917.

That was before the Spanish flu.

Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …

She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.

Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.

My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …

Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …

I look at these masks and that is what I see.

The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.

The story of surviving.

It’s a collective one.

29 thoughts on “Signs of the times

  1. Your post weaves together past and present so beautifully, along with your family history and the history of your community and our country. It also feels hopeful–a testament to what we can accomplish together. What a rich, resonant post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also enjoyed the way you connected what was presently happening to events from the past. Your rich history of storytelling is also apparent, you know so many details of your family and their stories. You tell them and weave them together beautifully to create a new focus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Jess – we learn from story. My grandmother probably didn’t realize what a gift she had for storytelling, or what a treasure her stories would be to me. I draw such strength from them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Like your other readers, it’s so beautiful the way you deftly weave in strategic details of past crises, helping us readers at times to make the connections to the current one. Love this line: “Homemade love.” My wife has been asked to sew masks by a friend who runs a healthcare company for the medically fragile. So the masks photographed in your post look familiar and I think will become a stable image in our house for some time. You describe the war effort and how it nationalized some industries- I’m hoping that happens now, as disruptive as they will be to our once familiar 21st Century lives. Ventilators are needed, as you point out in this line, “Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity.” Beautiful writing as always, Fran 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I so admire what people like your wife and my friend are doing – putting one’s specific skills and gifts to work on behalf of others. Writers are writing to encourage; ministers are going online to keep people’s spirits up and to maintain a sense of community – this is often MUCH more out of many of their comfort zones than for teachers grappling with online learning! Such courage on everyone’s part to carry on. Individual sacrificial acts of love and service got our country through before and will do so now. Industry … it will be changed, yes. Once again, the auto industry steps up … warcraft then and ventilators now… fascinating. Thank you so much for this response, Lanny.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve been thinking about the material culture of this moment and the history the artifacts will capture, the stories they tell. You take us clear back to biblical times w/ the allusion to Ecclesiastics. I’m now rewriting each part of that passage in my head. I love the way you connect the virus to your grandmother’s stories. I expect this moment to reap a renaissance of art. Of course I can’t help but think of the poem “We wear the mask.” The hidden features of the virus forces me to look at each person I see as a masked carrier. We are all connected in so many ways.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Profound connections, Glenda – to the metaphorical masks we wear (in the poem) to our heightened concerns about being around others. So many ways to examine the meaning of mask/masked at the moment. The altruistic and practical nature of my friend’s making these masks moved me … let us hope for more of that in the world now and moving forward. You’re right about art … we shall see what is born of these times, and what things we carry with us from now on, when the virus is dead.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Profound connections, Glenda – to the metaphorical masks we wear (in the poem) to our heightened concerns about being around others. So many ways to examine the meaning of mask/masked at the moment. The altruistic and practical nature of my friend’s making these masks moved me … let us hope for more of that in the world now and moving forward. You’re right about art … we shall see what is born of these times, and what things we carry with us from now on, when the virus is dead.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I am so thankful you had the time with your grandma to hear these stories. I do wonder if this pandemic will shape each of us differently like our grandparents or great-grandparents were shaped by the depression and the war. For my great-grandma, that meant continuing to make almost all her own clothes and saving every scrap of fabric and never throwing out a container (like butter tubs or cottage cheese container). I wish I had more stories from her, but was too young to know to ask before she was gone. Thank you for sharing yours so beautifully here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so grateful for her life stories. She lived to see my children and to read to them like she did to me. Amazing. That generation was truly shaped by the times to never waste anything. I think about the older people around the world who are dying now with COVID-19 and I have no adequate words for the profound loss of their lives and their stories, or the impact on their families. Thank you for reading – I so appreciate your thoughts and words here in response.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love the connection to the past. It makes me think about how my students always want to know why we have to study history. And my answer is always because we learn from it and it helps us get through what happens to us today. Your post today is a perfect representation of that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is the whole truth, Joyous – history does repeat itself and we are the ongoing story of it. From early in my childhood I was riveted by how people lived in the past, especially the little details of daily life, and having to make everything they had … easy to romanticize now but it was hard work every single day, just to keep living. For a long time, for my grandmother’s generation, between the Depression and WWII. Yet she and my grandfather lived for 50-60 more years after the war. Comforting food for thought. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Mmmm…. this post, full of stories and hope, makes me long to hear my grandmother again. She was born after the Spanish Influenza – I wonder what stories she heard about it as she was growing up? I wonder what stories our children will tell? May the stories be of the masks we sewed, the way we held each other and worked together to create something bigger than ourselves. May their stories, like yours, be stories of hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I miss my grandmother so. She never feels far away but how I wish we could talk. There’s a thousand things I would ask although I am grateful for all she gave. Today I saw where restaurateur Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. etc. is starting a fundraiser for restaurant workers who are laid off … only one of countless good things that will come out of this crisis, humanity coming together in time of need. Creating something bigger than ourselves, indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The past rippling through to the present, like the history contained in the rings of a tree which keeps on growing through years of drought, flood, and fire. Branches may break off, but the tree presses skyward, its roots growing deeper and trunk getting wider and stronger, lending support to the new growth closer to the sun.
    We come from sturdy stock, roots deep, connections wide and always, always looking toward the light.
    Be well, my friend.


  10. Survival IS a collective story, absolutely.

    And I love the way you bring the masks in as a tangible reminder that we are in a big an momentous time, that the thing we are living through will be something generations in the future will relay in one way or another, that WE are the history our grandchildren will read about.

    Thank you for this beautiful post.


    • It’s all a matter of perspective, a stopping, a realizing … we’re making history just be being alive at this time and using the tools, gifts, wisdom and knowledge we have – plus being willing to take leaps of faith. Yes. We look back and say wow, look how they came through. Look how they figured it out. Look where they went right and where they were so wrong … the future will do the same. As the world goes on turning… thank you, Lainie.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Your writing is a daily gift. Even when I miss a day, I can come visit later.
    I wrote about an ancestor who died in the flu epidemic of 1918 in SOL 21/31: Learning about Elvis.
    I arranged your final words into a poem to share with my daughter who has friends and neighbors making masks.

    Acts of service, gifts of love.
    The story of surviving.
    It’s a collective one.

    Write on, Fran.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Fran, with your flair for storytelling in such a gentle, lyrical way, I was swept into your storyline that generated from a gift of kindness. We as a nation are part of a continuing story of determination, perseverance, and hope in challenging times. Our voices ring true through the decades, each one building on others to prove that there is an indomitable spirit of good will, survival, and collectivity. We are a community of global voices here in this writing community. Your voice always bring a sense that we can overcome even the most oppressive issues of our times. With thanks, I congratulate you for sharing the best of your wisdom this month. Please join me starting tomorrow for my new venture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am always grateful your words and your keen insights, Carol. I will definitely visit as you kick off your new venture! It is bound to be wondrous and uplifting – as all your ventures are.


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