In this summer of restraint, of broken traditions and brewing anxieties that ebb and flow in accordance with the number of new COVID cases, I have often thought of my grandmother’s house. More precisely, I have often thought of her things — her small yet prized collection of ornately bucolic bone china teacups, a box of frail yellowed correspondence, decorative spoons that marked my grandfather’s journey across the battlefields of Europe. Each object in her home contained a story, proffered passage into my grandmother’s past and my mother’s childhood.
My summer visits to my grandmother’s house were an important ritual when I was young, both as a marker of the forward march of time and as a portal into our family history. It was my grandmother who journeyed to Ontario, leaving behind an agrarian life marked by political violence in Northern Ireland. Her emigration a century ago laid the foundation for the middle class, urban existence my parents built for me and which, in turn, my children experience today.
This summer, however, these epics of our family mythology operate as exposition, imparting an emotional narrative, qualitative truths about my grandmother’s life that I did not perceive before. Her belief in preparedness, her understanding of the precarity in all things. My grandmother knew that peace, stability, security and safety were provisional, dependent on political and environmental circumstances that are always, inevitably changing.
My grandmother’s home stood on the lip of a verdant slope, which gave way to undulating marshy fields of wildflowers, meadow grasses and rushes. In her kitchen, milk bags were rinsed and set to dry on the back of the electric stove; tin foil was wiped down and reused until the pieces were frayed as lace. At the time, the late 1980s, I took this as evidence of thrift, a habit born of childhood circumspection and prudence. It served as a practical offering of thanks, an acknowledgment of her journey from childhood insecurity to an adulthood of modest consistency. Waste not, want not.
The stairway down to the cellar was attentively stocked with canned foods — peaches in syrup, creamed corn, chicken noodle soup — insurance against a return of Depression-era paucity. These provisions meant there was food should others stop in, friends or relations. It expanded too, encompassing a collective, generational sense of duty to feed a man should he show up at her door; a perpetual notion that the less fortunate, the war ravaged, the injured, the recently arrived, the homeless could arrive at any moment. And in her words, we must always be prepared “to add another cup of water to the soup.”
During the pandemic, reconstructing my grandmother through her things has exposed an undercurrent that I missed as a child. These many decades later when, for the first time, I have been confronted by emptied grocers’ shelves, by flour shortages and medication delays, I now see her possessions as a defense against a return of scarcity, a wager in the face of an always unpredictable, volatile future.
Neither my children nor I have faced an acute crisis. The shortages we endured during the COVID pandemic were minor. We have not experienced poverty, illness, armed conflict, displacement. We are healthy. We have secure and stable housing. My partner and I are both employed. We have jobs we can do from the safety of home. We have a reliable internet connection and multiple devices, enabling our daughter to participate fully in remote learning. Maintaining continuity in our personal and professional relationships has been straightforward.
The state of emergency has primarily manifested in my children’s lives as long, loose stretches of time at home, unchoreographed, unplanned, visitor-less. The separation from grandparents was painful, the absence of friends was lonely. The gnawing, consistent anxiety about contracting the disease was difficult to counter as my partner and I struggle to explain and understand it ourselves. And all of this has been undercut by a current of barely concealed, grouchy boredom — an erratic energy that inevitably ends in injury and tears.
As a girl, I felt secure in the knowledge that the hard times were behind my grandmother. I assumed that they were behind us too. For what is the passage of time if not a march of perpetual progress?
I have not witnessed this quality of naive optimism in my daughter. She is coming of age during a global pandemic on a planet in the throes of a climate emergency. An international crisis is brewing as deeply divided nations amass behind xenophobic populists who promise a return to hegemonic political and economic rule. What effect will this particular period, this time of self-isolation and intimacy, have on her notions of the world, of the future, of her agency or lack thereof?
Unlike me, my kids do not have my grandmother and her house. They exist at a farther distance still from our family’s last experience of existential struggle. They know it only through stories, told by my mother, told by me. Without objects to scaffold these stories, to provide an architecture of experience, will they recognize what it took me nearly four decades to accept? The quality of life of any generation is precarious and the conditions of the future are unknowable.
As the world gradually reopens and we resume our cautious participation in public life, I am taking stock of the objects in our home. The prominence of our cloth masks strung across the kitchen window to dry; small bottles of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol stuffed into every bag and coat pocket; the sacks of rice, dried beans and lentils heaped on basement shelves; my neurotic tendency to stock up on tissues, instant yeast, hand soap and whole wheat Triscuits. What trails am I leaving with these habits? What film of meaning will cling like dust to the articles of my life? And, in the fullness of time, I wonder what my children’s memories will reveal about us, about our generation, about our values and priorities, and about what we did (or failed to do) in our time.The pandemic has had me thinking a lot about my grandmother, and the life she lived