by Denise Monroe – an autobiographical piece
My husband came home from Italy in February 2020. He had been staying with his sister and her husband, a retired Italian doctor who had worked in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak of 2014. He knew a thing or two about epidemics and what they could become. ‘This is serious,’ he told Alex, ‘get home and get ready.’ So it wasn’t my government that told me to prepare for lockdown, it was my brother-in-law.
I was in my first year of university and living in Suffolk during term time while my family stayed in London. It had been challenging and, at times, lonely but I relished the solitude and luxury of study after twenty-three years of being someone’s Mum. My cottage has a large garden and stands alone in the middle of a forest full of Scots Pine and ancient oak trees. It is the perfect place to study and think without the distractions of caring for a family. That was the dream anyway.
There were murmurs of lockdown in March as the rest of Europe started to close its borders. The British Government decided to carry on as normal, airports remained open, millions of people came and left the country. Supermarkets ran out of pasta and toilet roll as the uncertainty began to mount. We began to make plans. Alex and two of my daughters came to Suffolk. My mother-in-law lives alone in a nearby town so we invited her to stay with us. We were ready. The announcement finally came and on March 23 the country went into lockdown.
We tried to establish routine. I studied every morning as university moved into remote teaching. There were only a few of us in my first online seminar and we didn’t know whether to have our cameras on, to talk in turns, smile or be serious. ‘Hopefully I’ll see you all in a few weeks,’ said my tutor. He was only being encouraging but I have always been the pragmatic parent and those faces on the screen were the same ages as my own children. I wanted to say, ‘This is going to be awful. This is serious. Prepare yourselves.’ Instead, I smiled and said, ‘I think it might be a bit longer than that.’ They looked confused and I felt mean for even hinting that this might be more than a blip in their academic year. They would find out soon enough.
It is amazing how quickly we fall back into our roles within a family. My husband worked from his shed, my mother-in-law gardened, my children lay around in the sun and I did the shopping which was a mixed blessing: escape from confinement, entrapment in my role. Once a week I would drive to my local market town and stand in an orderly queue outside the supermarket, carefully avoiding eye contact with the people around me. They might want to talk. They might have it. Distance was best. I found that I quite liked shopping in a near empty store. I drifted down half stocked aisles and fancied myself in a scene from The Stepford Wives; all I needed was a flowing kaftan and some oversized sunglasses to complete the look. Returning home soon put an end to that fantasy. I would unpack the shopping, wash the shopping and then put it all away. We had read that the virus could live for up to 72 hours on some surfaces and we couldn’t put my mother in law at risk. She would offer to help me and I would explain again that I had to clean everything before she could touch it. Then she would stand at the kitchen door and silently watch me rinse down the weekly shop. I found this infringement of my personal space so irritating that I would hide behind the kitchen door and make faces at her just as I had to my own mother when I was a disgruntled five year old. I began to do yoga every day.
In April it was my middle daughter’s 21st birthday and the planned trip to Paris was obviously not going to happen. We decorated the garden room with red, white and blue ribbon, hung braids of onions from the wall, drew an Eiffel Tower and an Arc de Triomphe on the windows, ate croissant and drank hot chocolate. I began to wonder when normal would return. When would I see Paris again? Travel that had always been there was now a thing of the past.
By May the borders were bursting with lavender and the huge wisteria in the middle of the garden was dripping with flowers. A chaffinch nested outside the kitchen window and we counted three fledglings leave the nest. Blue tits bathed and chatted in the pond and a buzzard circled above our garden so frequently that we began to fear for the safety of my daughter’s Chihuahua. We had been blessed with the most glorious spring and summer and the kitchen garden was offering up produce: lettuce and radish, beetroot and herbs. My mother-in-law spent every day planting seeds, pulling up weeds, potting on, making plans for the garden. It got to the point when we had to restrict her working hours and make her rest after lunch every day. On her 89th birthday we broke the rules of lockdown so that her daughter could visit. We sat in the garden for tea and I worried that we were too close to each other, that they shouldn’t use the bathroom, that I would have to boil their teacups after they left. It was the first time anyone had breached our bubble and the first time I realised just how fragile my mental health had become. Not being able to hug our visitors made them seem like strangers to us. It was as though we had fought over the family silver and were trying to repair a broken relationship. The lack of touch and human interaction had made me insular and nervous. Irrational fears made me frightened of my visiting family. I left them talking and snuck into the safety of my bedroom like a moody teenager.
In June the restrictions were eased. My husband returned to work in London which meant that his mum had to return to her home as we couldn’t risk him bringing the virus back from the city. That was a difficult time for her and she was becoming increasingly fearful of the world outside of the house and garden which had been her home for three months. Every evening she would talk online to her daughter who was shielding in the next village. There was little news to report so the conversation inevitably turned to Covid. Every night. The daughter was more fearful than her mother and told her that she shouldn’t return home as all of the shops in town were closed and she would probably starve to death or die of loneliness. After every call we would have to calm my mother-in-law down and explain that we would visit, that the shops could deliver, that she would not be alone. It was a strain on us all but her fear was real and another reminder of how dependent we are on consistent human interaction to be able to function as part of society.
Even the best lockdown becomes like a prison. After 3 months of being the one who did the shopping, washed the shopping, decided what to eat, it all became overwhelming. I wanted to get in my car and drive to London and go and see a play with my friends. Watch actors spit their words out on a stage, revel in the exhalations. It made me appreciate my friends and the time that we lived in. Facetime, Zoom and WhatsApp enabled us to stay in touch but there was a price to pay. Family quiz nights became a weekly event, another routine to give structure to our lives. Another routine to feel trapped by. That was when it hit me, the new routine was stifling me. Family meals, family fun, family walks, family time. What had become of me?
While my husband worked in London, my daughters and I stayed in Suffolk and revelled in our smaller family. It was a relief not to have a guest, not to have to eat lunch together every day, not to be on best behaviour. I spent an entire sunny day lying in a hammock reading a book and felt gloriously sinful. I reclaimed my space and started to heal. By the end of the July, the girls were ready to leave and to pick up their London lives again. They were also fearful and that surprised me. Where could they meet? Could they hug? Could they go to pubs? Could friends come to the house? What if they sat in the garden? Their normal had gone and they were, like all of us, trying to figure out the new ways of being.
Throughout the lockdown I had kept a routine of morning study but having a house full of family had kept me tethered to the role of domestic goddess and I felt my autonomy cracking. Now that the family had left I needed to recalibrate and set myself up again as an individual. At the beginning of the year we had talked of driving to Italy to stay at my sister-in-law’s farm in Calabria. It was part of our plan not to fly again; instead we would take a month each year and have one touring holiday, be leisurely and reconnect with nature. As we began to plan our road trip there was talk of second wave, France closed her borders and we had to rethink. The pandemic had taken my independence, my university experience, my confidence and my sense of self. I wanted to swim in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean. I wanted to be selfish. Having said I would never fly again, we booked cheap flights to Lamezia and left at the end of August.
I hadn’t seen my family for over two years. I automatically hugged them when we arrived at the farm but then instantly apologised and jumped back. I washed my hands and admired them from a distance. We ate outside, overlooking the hills of southern Italy; we swam in the Med and walked to pizza restaurants at night. It was almost normal but also skewed. I was aware of my foreignness in a way I had never experienced before. Italy had been hit badly by the pandemic, but the south had remained comparatively unscathed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was from overseas in case they thought I had the virus, that I might infect them. I spoke little and hid behind my mask. On the fourth night we sat on the terrace with family and friends from the nearby town. We ate pitticelle and pasta and drank homemade wine, more delicious than I ever thought possible. My phone pinged. A friend’s child in London had tested positive. He was asymptomatic and we had seen them the day before we left. Our holiday came crashing down. We waited for the guests to leave before telling our family the the news. I felt sick to the stomach as my bubbling paranoia surfaced. There was a real chance that we had brought Covid to Italy. We were lucky to have a doctor in the family; he calculated that it had been five days since we had seen our friends. We hadn’t actually seen their son and they had only been with him for 24 hours since his return from Croatia which meant that the virus wouldn’t have had time to incubate. We should be clear but the fear was real and a shadow hung over the rest of our holiday as we stayed within the confines of the farm.
We are now in our third lockdown and swimming in the sea in Italy seems like a lifetime ago. Covid-19 has reminded me of the fragility of our lives, not in terms of death and dying but in the everyday that I take for granted. How the best laid plans can spiral out of reach, be it a birthday weekend in Paris, a move to university or a simple meal for one. The things that we take for granted, the plans that we make with glee, the holidays we feel our due; none of it is a given. I am a wife, a mother, a student, a woman and have struggled to keep all of these pieces of me delineated within the confines of one physical space. Covid has made me bring all of these pieces of myself together, to name them and nurture them and I finally realise I haven’t lost my independence, I’m just looking after it.