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(by Bex O'Brian)

We are in the thick of it now, deep into the horrors and realities of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. No life is untouched. Everyone is scared, and people want answers—though blowing up 5G towers seems a bit of a stretch. Or thinking that Bill Gates released the virus into the air so he could make money. Even he acknowledges that he has quite enough to live on, thank you.

Seemingly overnight, our lives are now constrained, our movements restricted. And when we do get out to shop, the bounty that three generations expected as their God-given right is suddenly looking a little threadbare. My market often has only a few sprouting potatoes moldering at the bottom of the bin. Fresh herbs are becoming scarce. Getting organic eggs is hit-and-miss. And there are signs up everywhere warning that we’re only allowed one packet of chicken thighs or frozen peas. Rationing!

Naturally, there are comparisons with those who survive the Blitz (I have noticed that there are no comparisons to more nefarious wars, the ones that don’t have the universal appeal of the good fight), although others seem to think it’s ridiculous to equate the two. The bombs that rained down on the heads of hapless Londoners, several of which were members of my family, were entirely man-created. Covid-19 is an unseen menace; you can’t send out the troops to repel the attack. Valid point.

And yet.

I was Zooming (all these new expressions: sheltering, zooming, social distancing) with my aunt the other day. When the pandemic broke out, she was vacationing in Mexico. It took her weeks to get a flight back to Canada, and now she was in the second week of her self-quarantine. She was sitting back in her chair, a little slumped. “This,” she said, “so reminds me of the war.”

“The rationing?” I asked.

“That, but mostly the lack of control. For the first time in my adult life, I have the same feeling I had in the war. I control nothing.” Anne leaned forward, propelled by the still vivid memory. “I was a little young during the Blitz, not like your mother, who was in the heart of it. But by 1944 and the doodlebugs, I was very aware.”

Doodlebugs, or buzz bombs, officially known as the V-1 bombs, were the Nazis’ late entry into the war, designed to terrorize the citizens of London. They were self-guided, and when the engine cut, you knew it was curtains.

“You lived listening,” my aunt said. “Listening, praying it would keep going, that you wouldn’t hear the engine stop. But when it did, there was nothing you could do, just wait, give up all sense that there was some safety, someplace you could run to, just wait and….” Anne shook her head. “The house two doors down—direct hit.”

As I sat, peering into my computer, trying to ignore my own image up in the corner (Why do we need to see ourselves? It’s unnerving), I realized that in many ways Covid-19 could be compared to the terror of the Doodlebug. The randomness. Why the house two doors down? Why do some of us get very sick while some of us have only slight symptoms? Yes, the state of overall health plays a significant part, but every day I read about perfectly healthy people dying as the virus rampages through their bodies, overwhelming any defenses.

Anne and I un-Zoomed, and I went into the kitchen to start dinner. Anne was right: My mother had been in the thick of the war. Born in the East End of London near the docks, I knew her family was under near constant bombardment. Over the years, I picked up some tidbits about her experience. I knew that she hated having her father’s greatcoat thrown over her when they were cowering down in the cellar during the raids. She loved Yanks. Thought the word Oklahoma was so romantic (but years later was shocked at the Midwest reality). Her mother would tell her that, because she was half-Jewish, should Hitler win the day, she’d end up in the ovens. Her brother drowned in the Thames. Her father lost his mind during the bombing raids and died in an insane asylum. I knew too that my grandmother insisted they drink the “green water” (the detritus in the pot after cooking vegetables), eat the peels of everything, and the crusts. Her family had survived the Irish potato famine, so I think the skills to weather the Blitz were in her blood.

This was the fabric of my mother. Mysteries, things that I didn’t understand as a kid and that used to bug me in an obscure way, began to bubble up. She would never take a drink of water without rinsing the glass three times. She was miserable eating in restaurants. As soon as her plate was laid before her, she would itemize the perceived true cost. “Three cents worth of peas. Two dollars at most for this cut of meat.” Nothing her daughters said could get her to relax and enjoy. She had a horror of beets, a wartime staple. A paralyzing fear of fireworks. And, if she was going to indulge, I knew she wanted to do it alone, unseen, the only way for pleasure to outweigh the guilt. I saw all those things growing up, but didn’t know enough to be sympathetic.

As I cut up my kale, careful to preserve the stems so I could cook them down to be part of a vegetable pâté I make, I wondered what, ten, twenty years from now, a child might notice about her parents. We will not get out of this unscarred: the hand washing, the food washing, the fear of standing close to another human. Will she notice her mother hesitate before grabbing a handle, or look odd when a friend leans in for a hug and feel that same slight irritation I felt, thinking, “Why can’t my mom just be normal?”

Normal? Now there’s a distant concept.


Bex O'Brian was, until recently, a columnist at Salon, and is a contributor to Dorothy Parker's Ashes. She is the author of the novel Radius.

Waste Nothing Vegetable Pâté

(Save all your stems and stalks; my favorite are kale stems, broccoli stalks, but spinach, collard, and kohlrabi work too, and in any combination.)

2 handfuls of stalks and stems

skins of 2 large potatoes

a pat or two of butter

1 organic bouillon cube

chicken or vegetable broth (homemade is best)

salt, to taste

optional: sour cream or mayonnaise

Add all vegetables, butter and bouillon cube to a pan.

Pour in broth just to cover.

Cover pan and cook over low heat until the stems and stalks are very soft.

(This can take a while. Check to make sure the broth hasn't evaporated completely.)

When vegetables are soft and there's very little broth left, let cool a few minutes.

Pulse in a food processor or with a hand-held mixer.

Check for salt.

Optional: Stir in sour cream or mayonnaise.

Lovely on buttered toast, or as a side dish.


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