All the church services had been canceled since March. Religious people across the Globe grieved that their churches, synagogues and temples and mosques were closed. By Easter Sunday the members of the clergy had taken their messages to Zoom. In Rome, The Pope was kissing the altar, praying alone in the Vatican. In Lennox and Addington county an 89-year-old woman stood outside the church she had attended her entire life, waiting for the bells ring. She had walked about three kilometres because she had no car. Since this whole thing had started, she’d done everything right. She’d masked and socially distanced and washed her hands, but no one could get her to understand why Mass was not happening. Why after all those years of driving she had to walk there.
Her confusion was not much different than the rest of us. Confusion was the companion of COVID. The first wave hit hard. In March, people’s minds were thrust into new life of restrictions while their minds were back in February packing for a trip they would never get to take.
Holy Week had not been any fun for my mother. On Monday, her doctor had given her the Montreal Memory test, a standard exam they use to asses recall, She answered much of the test exceptionally well, but it was three small words that tripped her up.
Frog. Dish. Shoe.
One part of her brain worked just fine, and the other part was playing tricks on her.
Her license was pulled, deemed null, and void immediately. That damn doctor. I will never go back to her as long as I live. Since it would take three days for the official document to come in the mail, she thought she could still squeeze in a drive.
Not a woman to disobey the law, on Holy Thursday she went rogue and went on a driving tour about seven miles north. Without a license or insurance she meandered back to the family farmstead, where she had grown up. Then drove down the road to her high school, and to where a man used to let her tie up her horse and cutter. There were no buses back then. Not when she went to school. Gwen and maybe a sister or two, would be tucked under a wool blanket with heated rocks to keep their feet from turning to ice. They lay back and closed their eyes because the horse automatically knew the road home to school.
The next day, Good Friday, my brother dropped in on her. She sat in the sunroom and held her hand up to her left eye blocking out him and the sun, and spilled the beans, “I drove around the old haunts. So sue me.”
In years past, Good Friday would have meant fasting and saying Hail Mary’s. A thousand before three pm. I don’t know how this number was determined but I do know it was always accompanied by cleaning.
Is the cleaning part of the Christian faith?” my therapist used to ask me.
Yes, Dr. Halpern. Yes, it is.
As we cleaned my mother would walk by me and direct me to say my Hail Mary’s aloud,
“Why do I have to say them out loud? And not Callie?” Callie was my younger sister being groomed to be a nun-a fact that granted her a lifetime of moral superiority long after the convent dream was dropped-and so she was trusted to pray on her own.
“I want to make sure you are doing them, right!”
“Of course I’m doing them, right? Do you think I am lying? I’m not lying.”
Or course I was lying. I lied about everything back then.
On Good Friday in the year of COVID. I was not praying or cleaning but lying under the covers because the power had gone out. It had been a month since the lockdown and a downed hydro wire which at one time seemed at worst inconvenient, now seemed ominous.
The fire alarm rang in my apartment for an hour straight and because we were all socially isolated -no one came out of our flats. If there had been a real fire we would have turned to ash. But there was no fire, as the alarms were on some system that couldn’t be shut down until the fire department checked every nook and cranny apartment was getting cold. I kept opening and closing my door to check what was going on. The hallway was pitch black, and near the front door stood the odd man from the second floor, There are a disproportionate number of odd men for such a small building but this was the odd duck who long before the virus hit ritualistically washed door handles and cleaned his shoes every time he left the building. God help you if you ever were in a hurry.
But he stood there in silhouette, and when I asked if he knew what was going on, he turned to me and whispered,
“It’s the virus. It must be the end of the world.”
On another day, I would’ve found him amusing, but isolating in my apartment had robbed me of my smiles. I turned away from him, went back into the apartment and locked the door, and pulled the covers up over me, hoping if the world was going to end it would end while I was asleep.
On Easter Sunday I was still alive. A glimmer of sun roused me from my slumber and as I wiped the sleep from my eyes, my brother texted that mom was outside her church, with locked doors and peeling bells.
For my mother, church was an essential service, something she had rarely missed in her 89 years. Perhaps once or twice when she had a baby or there was a snowstorm, but she could count the number of absences on one hand. Even when my brother was dying, she drove to the nearest church to make her Sunday obligation.
We often criticized her ritualistic form of faith. For blessing herself with the sign of the cross when we drove past a church, her prayers laid out in the same way, and in the same order. It seemed less like faith and more like some form of OCD. Something she did out of fear of going to Hell rather than getting into heaven.
But as I got older, I see our similarities – in not just our faces-there is no escaping the fact we had the same face-but also our attachment to ritual. Like her, I don’t do well without it. Every morning, I drop to my knees, ask for help for the day, make coffee, write my gratitude, and go for my walk. If I miss any of these things for more than a few days, I start to feel disconnected from myself.
During COVID these rituals were my essential services. My late friend Marie’s words played over and over in my mind, “Hold on to that which gives you comfort.”
The next time I saw Mom, I told her how proud I was of her for her long trek she took to go to Church to which she said,
“After all that the dang bells only rang for 5 minutes.”
“I know but walking all that way after you had driven around the backroads without permission, you’ve become quite the bad-ass, mother.”
“Am I, now?” She said, a sly smile coming across her face. As she began to fiddle with her hands like a child playing a finger game, she whispered, ” Frog. Dish. And… what was the other word again?” over and over again.
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