Sacrificing Family Gatherings to a Wily Virus

Bowie and Mona demonstrate the importance of family

The COVID scare has certainly altered our social behaviors, and no one knows how permanent these changes will be. Not all of the changes are bad, however; they just require more reflection and deliberate choices. For example, in the past, we might have comfortably crowded people in front of us in lines, or squandered time studying labels in a grocery store or the advertised features on boxes, bottles, and what have you. We’re more mindful these days, I believe, of the quality of our time spent around others. We’ve been forced to prioritize our moments in public. It seems that everyone I know has arrived at a similar juncture; we’re all sacrificing certain pleasures  in order to maintain some normalcy where it concerns the most important occasions or experiences.

To a heightened degree, all of us are weighing our options, with the hope that our sacrifices will result in reduced risk to our health and the health of those about whom we care most. Our family decided for the second year in a row to forfeit our Christmas Eve gathering, a tradition we have honored — unwaveringly — for several decades. While I tend to think we all were on board with that decision — as COVID cases rise once again, there’s a sense of mounting anxiety, not just about wellbeing, but the fear that a pattern is emerging because of this highly transmissible virus, and we might never extricate ourselves from this predicament. What does that mean for family gatherings? How long can we collectively hold our breath, in hopes that we prevail over COVID (in all of its mutations)? And how many of us are worrying that our sacrifices will fail to save these important traditions, that they’ll be lost forever?

Every family out there must be fretting about the fate of their traditional gatherings. With all the sacrificing that people are doing, it seems a line in the sand has been drawn. Some things shouldn’t have to be sacrificed. I don’t hesitate for an instant in making a choice between a concert and my family’s Christmas Eve event. Or a Bruins game and a week camping with my sister’s family. Wherever things stand a year hence, I resolve to no longer surrender the moments that make life worth living.

What are the sacrifices that all of you have been forced to make in order to (hopefully) propel yourself and others to a safer plateau?

Planned Obsolescence Is Not an L.L. Bean Principle

 This is a love story about an L.L. Bean fleece vest. Now, here’s what you need to know. I’ve worn the vest every day for the last fourteen days, no exceptions. In fact, I’m wearing it as I write this post.

Now, if I didn’t also include the small detail – that I’ve washed it three or four times – you might think, ew, that’s just gross, instead of getting my real point, which is that I have found an article of clothing that, having survived several trips through both the washer and dryer, I love, or, better said, I still love. That hasn’t happened in so long, and it’s usually because once I put something into the washer and then dryer, it comes out as something other than what I put in, something decidedly not good. And that makes me angry because I view it as a breach of contract. Never mind that the washing instructions might say, “hand wash only” and “hang dry”.  I think they put that on just about everything these days to let them off the hook. The liberal and, in my mind, excessive use of labels like this is designed to convince you that all clothing is a giant gamble.  Have you noticed that labels are now sewn into seams in batches of ten or more to cover all languages? And, do you find yourself standing in front of your washing machine and squinting at the tiny icons, saying to yourself, That “X” is either telling me I can’t put this in the washer, or I can’t put this in the dryer, or it’s not microwavable.” Discouraged thus, you throw it in and follow with a Fuck it. (Be especially suspicious if a label says, “dry flat”, because that’s an indication that the item was constructed by garment workers in the midst of a New Year’s Eve celebration and they expect it to either emerge from the washing machine as something entirely unrecognizable or in no fewer than a dozen pieces.)  Sad to say, the expected shelf life of clothing these days has been reduced to about the same length of time one can expect fresh raspberries to stay. . . well. . . fresh.  The most maddening thing is that clothing manufacturers go about their business with deliberate, planned obsolescence as a key part of their model. I think, as proper punishment (or poetic justice) they all should be made to wear their own constructions after three washes*.

People who study fashion, especially from a historical perspective, are quick to point out that in the 60’s and 70’s clothing was made to last for several seasons. I’m not sure, but “several seasons” probably meant three. If we’re looking for a much more dramatic comparison, I invite you to consider how clothing was viewed in colonial times; one’s last will and testament very likely included language to assure that the testator’s one wool greatcoat and homespun breeches went to son Ezekiel or close friend Isaac. They weren’t taking any chances with their priceless “waring apparil”. 

Consider, also, the status of closets in relationship to other rooms in colonial era houses.  While all rooms at that time would be classified as utilitarian, i.e., there were no pointless foyers that wasted space, or sitting rooms – who had time for that anyway?, closets were the quintessential multi-purpose room, serving a variety of purposes (but perhaps not all at the same time): for conducting business (not necessarily “that kind”, but business business), dressing, praying, freshening up with a water basin, and, yes, for conducting “that kind” of business, too. These types of closets were larger than the rarer clothes closets. So, the obvious reason as to why 18th and 19th century homes, even the nice ones, did not have clothes closets is because, as alluded to before, they didn’t have much in the way of clothing. 

It’s probably unimaginable to 21st century trendsetters, but three and four centuries ago, “fashionable” could be used to describe something that had been enjoying decades of “on trend” standing. There was a much longer trajectory from “conception to reality”, which can be better understood by taking a peek at a typical New Englander’s daily planner; instead of having quilled “school shopping”,   Ezekiel’s parents likely entered a reminder to self to  “shear sheep”, followed the next day by “clean wool”, followed the next by “card wool”, and so forth. Or maybe the notation was, “trade yrlng** for Asa’s 2nd jerkin***”. When you illuminate more broadly the historical context, it’s much easier to understand and appreciate the relationship that people had with their possessions.

Today’s habits paint a very different picture of our relationship with clothing and accessories.  We are apt to assess our mood first before we reach for any one article; “What am I feeling today?”, we think aloud before we reach for the cream colored, slouchy, cotton/poly blend, waffle-textured, high-low sweater, and the frayed hem, distressed look, boyfriend jeans. But then we waver, “Maybe I should wear that coppery colored, high-waisted, pleated corduroy skirt that I bought on sale last month.” Our thoughts about clothing contradict our behaviors; we can refer to a sweater as our favorite, and love-love-love it, but it’s likely to be in a bag destined for the Goodwill drop-off center before the very next season. And while my advice might be to never get too attached to an article of clothing, the world can be a cold and unfriendly place if we don’t indulge in some of those feel-good moments that happen – even if rarely – when, for example, an ensemble not only feels right, but fits perfectly, too, or even when we wiggle into a new pair of tights and make the happy discovery that they fit everywhere and there are no baggy ankles and we haven’t ripped them the very first time out of the package. It’s enough to make us skip around or dance in those tights in our walk-in closet. 

On the rare occasion when we stumble on an article of clothing that exceeds our much reduced expectations, it is indeed a cause for celebration. In my case, the celebration has taken the form of repeat usage. It’s not that I set out to see if I could find the breaking point of this one L.L. Bean fleece vest. I just happen to love how it feels. It’s so cozy and warm. I don’t find it impossible to believe that everyone has at least one item that’s their “go to”, one item that inspires warm and/or hopeful thoughts when they reach for it. These objects of our affection – the well-worn cap that invariably sits on a fisherman’s head when he goes out in his boat, or the Ugg slippers that would be worn to bed if the wearer could get away with it – become important talismans. While it’s highly unlikely that anyone in this day and age will puzzle over the wording of their last will and testament to assure the fate of their favorite baseball cap or L.L. Bean fleece vest, having such an attachment is of the most innocuous sort. Even if life expectancy (of the item in question) is reduced, as surely it must be, I say, Go for it!  Wear it fourteen days in a row! You can always throw it in the washing machine (unless, of course, that vexing label says it’s hand wash.)

* unless we’re talking about the jean jacket, which evidence suggests has been around since colonial times, and can take any manner of abuse and still look as good as the day it was woven. . . on a loom.

**yearling

*** Ezekiel’s uncle Asa operates the village’s only tannery behind his house on the west end, appropriately located just downwind of the last homestead.

Hello from over here!

My blog, now more than ten years old, has moved to this new location. I’m poking around to see what this new home is all about, and exploring fresh ideas to make it perfect. I hope I can depend on your patience as I (boldly?) experiment with aesthetics and new ways of presentation. It’s an opportunity, too, to break away from habits that haven’t done anything worth keeping, either for you or for me.

If you’re a new visitor or follower, here’s what you can expect to find. When I was a high school classroom teacher, I was forever finding opportunities to tell my students stories, often about growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s next to a maximum security prison. Always there would be a point, sometimes subtly delivered, but educators never willingly forfeit a teachable moment. Chaos could be reigning, and all I needed to say (in nothing more than a conversational tone) to instantly grab their attention was, “Let me tell you a story. . . ” So, for decades, I’ve been telling stories, often in the oral tradition. Now blessed with an abundance of free time in my retirement, my brain has a chance to focus on my stories and luxuriate in the details. I’m enjoying this new sense of wonder that I bring to the effort. In short, this is all about my evolution as a writer. “Becoming a writer”, I find, is no easy thing. Just as there were countless acronyms and industry-specific expressions to learn when I entered the field of education, writing has its own lexicon. And best practices. And communities, some of which embrace new members warmly, but others of which who have forgotten what it’s like to be a novitiate (not in the religious sense), and get all smug and cold-shouldery.

One of the first lessons I have learned in my new endeavor is that “fresh new voice” often doesn’t include a second career baby boomer who fits into a majority classification. I get that, and I support organizations that are trying to bring understanding and fairness to the realm. It hurts, however, that my pieces might not be welcome, or that my ideas might be irrelevant for today’s conversations. At least, that’s what I fear.

All of my topics are nestled beneath an umbrella that encompasses my evolution as a writer. The particular topics that I prefer to write about include: my large, vocal family of Irish American heritage, genealogical discoveries within that same sphere, local history, my two capering canines, insights from my years as an educator, and commentary on what’s going on in the world. I have lots to share, lots to say, and I hope you’ll be just as eager to join the conversation. Maybe even coax me along so that I feel confident when I say that I’m a writer.

Let the adventure begin!