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By the Way: Survival mode


Who would have thought the paper aisle in the supermarket would be so magnetic? But there it was –drawing dismayed shoppers like a ripe banana attracts fruit flies – bare shelves reaching into a perceived infinity, and maybe even beyond.

The women stood in groups, holding fast to their already-overflowing shopping carts. Their concerns turned to conversation and everyone had a different story to tell.

How they felt about the coronavirus, whether all this ounce of prevention stuff, hand-washing and social distancing would be effective, whether they’d get a refund from their daughter’s college – at least for her room and board after she was sent home.

Another had had trouble finding baby Tylenol for her infant. “What exactly does self-quarantine mean?” a troubled young woman asked of no one in particular. “How will we do this? If we live through it, that is?”

Somehow, sharing the burden was helpful. As it usually is. And somehow, we’ll all do this – together. In just the last 100 years we’ve survived the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, World War II, the polio epidemic, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, 9/11 and the continuing wars in the Middle East. Recalling the way it was makes this easier.

I, now targeted as elderly and at high risk, am old enough to recall a bit of World War II deprivation on the home front and recognize the turmoil an empty shelf can create in a way I did not as a child.

In those distant years people had to work their way around the food (and other) shortages – and that went on for years. And don’t forget, those were burdens borne mostly by wives and mothers, without comforting male arms.

Their men were away – near, far – many women didn’t even know for months or years where they were or even if they were still alive. I grew up in a world of women and older men – and the women were the tenacious shoppers.

I recall a severe and continuous shortage of sugar and butter. One woman I knew must have had an inside track to someone at the local grocery store and did not share the news before racing to the store. Because of that she was not universally liked. But, the others on the block were savvy enough to watch her every move. Soon, she’d get a call and, like a Judas goat, she’d be followed to the store. If you weren’t part of that early 5K, you got no sugar. It was as funny as it was sad.

I recall air raid drills both at school and at night when all our windows were cloaked in black. They were frightening. My sister was in high school during the early war years and she spent hours studying the silhouettes of enemy planes so she could identify them as she and her friends scanned the skies. Fortunately, those planes never came, but all this preparedness was scary stuff to a child. As were the reports of German U-boats along the Jersey coast.

These were also the years of measles, mumps, chicken pox and, scarlet fever. Kids got really sick, and quarantine was a big word then, too, only it wasn’t self-quarantine. The board of health would come and nail a warning sign on the front door, imprisoning the entire family.

We saved and flattened tin cans, collected and bundled newspapers and magazines, all to be recycled for the war effort. Toys were in short supply, but we played war games, running around and joyfully battling the enemy, calling them Japs and Jerries – no political correctness imposed on us then.

I still have my old ration book with most of the stamps removed. Our family was lucky. There were six of us – my mother, my father, my maternal grandmother, my big sister and big brother and me.

Rationing made shoes a problem, We were allowed two pairs a year, I think, but we kids sometimes grew out of them faster than that, so our parents and Grandma gave their shoe coupons to us and kept the local shoemaker in business repairing theirs.

Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when we held our collective breath for 13 days not knowing if we’d be blasted into nuclear dust? We survived that.

We’re a strong people, and even though a threat like this brings out the best and the worst in us, we’ll make it through this one.