During the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, I opened my Apple laptop to order a book I wanted to read. Amazon had become my one shopping source, along with Instacart for food.
Like a thunderbolt out of the blue, I finally grasped my cousin Patty Williams’ feelings of isolation in something she had told me when we were about age twelve. Her thought came rushing back to me, and I wanted to call her and share it with her until I remembered that she had died of a stroke some years ago.
My memory of her came from my annual summer visit on her family’s large farm near Delway, N.C. For a city girl like me, that farm was a magic place with field after field of food crops and tobacco. A big dinner bell on a pole summoned all the workers to stop at noon, wash up at the well, and gather around a long table filled with mouth-watering “country cooking” under a tall shade tree.
I was fascinated by the men and women bundling tobacco leaves and skillfully tying them onto wooden sticks with cotton string — preparing them to hang in a hot barn to cure. I always felt welcomed there and peaceful with my Aunt Nellie Gray and Uncle Daniel.
Over time, they became my role model for a good marriage. They were strict, kind, loving parents to their two daughters and two sons. Every child had steady jobs on the farm, and I never heard any complaining about hard work.
Patty and I were picking a bushel of butter beans early one morning to shell when she said to me in a wistful voice, “I hope our tobacco crop is good so I can order some new school shoes from the Sears & Roebuck catalog.”
Only now at age 87 in the midst of my own isolation can I hear her true feelings of doing without necessities that I took for granted. My fresh vegetables and chicken came from the City Market in Wilmington and the rest from a grocery store. We shopped for clothes in a department store and for shoes in a shoe store with a fluoroscope x-ray machine that showed the image of my feet. The store clerk always advised a thumb’s width of “growing room.” Her mother had her stand on heavy paper so she could trace around her feet and send them with her shoe order to Sears and Roebuck.
I had sidewalks and skates and a paved street to ride a bike and always had neighborhood friends to play outdoor games like Hop-Scotch and Red Rover. The only work I dreaded was having to rinse our laundry in the bathtub on my hands and knees, wring out each piece, and hang it on the line outside to dry. A bird was often on high alert, poised to leave me a message on a clean white sheet that had to be spot-cleaned and hung on the line again.
My cousin Patty had no indoor bathroom. An outhouse was used in the daytime and chamber pots at night. There was usually an ample stack of pages from an expired Sears and Roebuck catalog for outhouse toilet tissue. Hot baths were done in a big tin tub with heated water on Saturday afternoons. My aunt supervised the girls and Uncle Daniel the boys. Between those times, basins of hot water were used for “freshening up” as best one could.
It would be well after World War II before a new kitchen with a new stove replaced the wood stove and two bathrooms added to that farm home.
From those times until now, farm children have many more advantages than Patty had. Roads have been paved, television has shrunk city and country differences, and there is much less isolation. Country life has become increasingly appealing for its space and peacefulness. Patty’s isolated world has almost vanished.
How ironic it seems to me at age 87 that I now feel as isolated as Patty felt at age 12. For her, the passage of time, education and maturity erased all that. For me, destiny came calling with the coronavirus and has isolated me for an unknown amount of time. In 2020, I’m now tip-toeing in her shoes.