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Chuck's World: The importance of remembering the way we were


Last updated 4/8/2020 at 11:40am

I like to imagine, 20 years from now, some curious young person, maybe a child, perhaps writing an essay for school, visiting my 81-year-old self with questions about this pandemic.

"Excuse me, sir," he'll say, approaching my Purell pod carefully so as not to activate the bioalarms. It takes him a few tries before I notice, because I'm busy watching an old episode of "The Office."

"Jim kissed Pam!" I'll tell him enthusiastically, and his dad will place a firm hand on his shoulder. This is important for the older folks, he'll tell the child. Just smile and nod.

Eventually he'll work up enough courage to ask his question. "Please, sir, I was just wondering. What was it like during the time of COVID?"

I'll take my time, stroke my chin, try to look thoughtful. I take this elder thing seriously. I want to be useful. I also really want to get back to Jim and Pam.

"We ate a lot of pasta," I finally tell him. "And for personal protective equipment, I wore my underpants on my head."

"OK," he'll say. "I think I have all I need here."

I know, I know. It's way too early to be looking ahead to looking back, if you follow. We're a ways off from feeling nostalgic about 2020, and uncertainty is about all we've got.

At the same time, I've begun to feel an urge to document for posterity. A friend of mine decided to make a few contemporaneous notes the other day, and it struck me as a good idea.

Gas cost him $1.65 a gallon. There is tape on the floor at grocery stores, which have aisles of empty shelves. There is no school, and no work for many. Churches are closed, concerts are canceled.

I've been poring over the calendar, trying to explain to friends in other parts of the country how it was here in our region. How the freeways emptied out quickly; the first week of March, I cut one particular weekly commute of mine, sometimes as long as 90 minutes, down to an easy half-hour. And that was a month ago.

Long before official directives were issued, we were paying attention. Other than a few grocery store employees, spotted from a distance or behind a plastic shield, I haven't seen another human besides my family and an occasional neighbor in a month.

But that's just the way we are, now sitting here on one side of the peak of this pandemic, uncertain yet which side. In the years to come, we'll be able to take a breath (we hope) and evaluate what exactly happened to us.

That's what interests me now. What has happened, and what will change.

For people my age, there are some silver linings. We'll have fresh stories to tell our captive audiences. No longer will we have to rely on stories about only three television channels and rotary dial phones. We'll tell exaggerated stories of wiping down fruit and getting sandpaper skin from washing our hands so much.

What we need to remember, though, at least in my opinion, is last year. And the other years, before 2020 dawned fresh and deadly.

I have a handy test subject, as it turns out. My grandson is 6, currently furloughed from kindergarten, and at last update apparently enjoying this change from routine. "He's going to be one of these kids who remember this as the best of times," my daughter said the other day.

It's what he won't remember that's on my mind.

He went to his first baseball game last year, causing his grandpa's heart to explode into a million tiny pieces of joy. I don't know what happens to baseball, and now I wonder if he'll remember that, going to a place teeming with other people, shoulder to shoulder, bacteria the currency of crowds.

I'll wonder if he'll remember when shopping could be spontaneous, stopping in to pick up a few things or just browse. I wonder if that will be lost, social spontaneity. Brick-and-mortar retail has been crumbling for a while; malls were already on life support, and I suspect that experience will never be the same.

In the same way that I could explain to a 20-something what air travel was like in the last century, with whole families waiting at the gate, I wonder if I'll be describing crowded beaches.

Will he have some memory of going to a theater, or in the future will everything be streaming?

I'm not describing dystopia. I could do that. There are plenty of bad scenarios, and plenty of worse ones.

I'm just curious about the changes that I suspect will inevitably come, as we adjust to new challenges. And I'm curious about how a little boy will see them, and remember.

He sent me a video yesterday, obviously proud that he'd memorized a poem, Langston Hughes' "April Rain Song." He scrunched up his face to recall the lines, and grinned as he recited.

"Let the rain kiss you," he said. "Let the rain sing you a lullaby."

And then I realized that whatever changes are in store, some things remain the same. Rain on the roof. Little children, facing a world they didn't create but now can change themselves. Understanding what will never leave, rainbows and poetry, and how your grandpa's heart can break into a million tiny pieces of joy from knowing that some things will never change.


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