“What is your favorite memory so far from 2020?” someone on Facebook asked. Oh, ha, ha, ha! That’s a good one.
Eating dinner in the back garden, as a train of ants carried off sesame seeds from a rollaway sesame seed bun, I asked my kids what their favorite memory of the year was, so far. They thought hard. I offered a suggestion: Chalking “Black Lives Matter” on the sidewalk in front of Scoop du Jour? No, they shook their heads, that was meh. Visiting London in January? Apparently not. “Going to the ocean with my friends,” said Nettie. “Nothing, really,” said Teddy.
Pushing aside the gray sludge that clouds my windscreen vision of 2020, my own favorite moment was circling deck seven aboard the Queen Mary II in high seas, tilting into the high winds, as we crossed the North Atlantic, way back in January, 13 lifetimes ago. I walked a mile every evening, regardless of the weather. Intrepid pedestrians aboard the Queen Mary proceed in a counterclockwise direction, though I couldn’t tell you why. With each round, I’d stop to wave through a porthole at a new friend, a bearded tugboat owner from Rhode Island, who dined in the Queens Grill in a tuxedo.
I’d always wanted to go on a crossing. My grandmother, the late editor of this newspaper, was a steamship obsessive. Tickets for Cunard voyages were sold out of the Star office by my grandfather Arnold. In the linen closet are a heavy navy wool deck blanket from the first Queen Mary and a somewhat thinner black-and-red one from the old Queen Elizabeth.
One-way sailings from New York Harbor to Southampton are cheap in winter. Cheaper than flying us over, I told myself as I calculated my justifications. The number of tea sandwiches we consumed as we rolled along and the orchestra played Lana Del Rey to a foxtrot beat more than compensated for the price of our cabin. Also, I had a creeping feeling that we might never again get the opportunity to travel on the Cunard line, if we waited even one more year: Climate change would soon make such extravagant travel impossible to reconcile with the demands of even a feeble conscience.
It was aboard the Queen Mary that we heard the news of a frightening virus emerging in Wuhan, China. We stood looking up at the news on the flat screen in the cabin in our uncomfortable evening clothes.
I’ve always been one of those people who secretly long for an emergency. The storm, the crash. Not with my prefrontal lobes, obviously, but with some more primitive part of the brain — and I think a lot of people who wouldn’t admit it feel this way, too: Let the disaster come! Come, the storm! Because in a disaster there are a lot of petty and tiresome things you no longer have to do, or even worry about.
The emergency we got, however, is really not any fun at all. It’s been 119 days since Teddy came down with a suspicious on-off fever and I stayed home with him on Monday, March 9, tying a bottle of hand sanitizer to the front-door knocker with a ribbon, along with a note of warning to all who would be barred entry. We’ve been sticking close to home so long it’s starting to get hard to remember what exactly we’re missing.
As with the “best thing about 2020” stumper, I have to concentrate to conjure up what fun used to consist of. I sorely miss trips by plane, train, and automobile. One of my life’s greatest pleasures, since I was my daughter’s age (she is turning 13 today), was to order brochures for hotels and destinations and spend hours and hours looking at the pictures, comparing the reviews, and choosing. I miss the East Hampton movie theater, even though I’m still annoyed they stopped selling chocolate almonds and turned off their movie-schedule phone line. I’m afraid if I dial 324-0448, it will be disconnected, so I’m not going to dial it.
Some of you readers may know me as the editor of EAST magazine, which The Star isn’t putting out this summer. Weirdly, I have a new job for the year: I’m a contact tracing supervisor. My family’s entire lives have been completely transformed to an extent none of us could have imagined on the fateful overnight between March 12 and March 13, when the airports emptied and the classrooms fell silent, and we all started to have bad dreams.
I work at my grandmother’s desk now, in the downstairs bedroom. I’ve been using a Bakelite Cunard ashtray from the 1940s as a coaster. My water glass sweats in the humidity of my indoor office.
Like many people, I’ve been attempting to use pandemic time to good ends, baking the sourdough, learning how to grow things. The layout of the back garden and most of the things that grow there date to my grandmother’s day: mostly hostas and ferns, and a few not very impressive clumps of especially thorny roses.
We do have a rosebush that is said to be one of the “shipwreck roses” from the French packet Louis Philippe, which went ashore at Mecox in 1840. My grandmother, who I think might be the person responsible for spreading the legend of the shipwreck roses in the first place, wrote that she had gotten her own shipwreck rose off her Aunt Minnie Huntting, who lived in the white house opposite the First Presbyterian Church and was born in 1887. I don’t necessarily know if my grandmother’s purported shipwreck rose is plausibly one of the several varieties that were dragged from the wreckage, but I have invited Stephen Scanniello, president of the Heritage Rose Foundation, out to have a poke around the garden. He is cheerfully willing, but I hope my rose doesn’t disappoint.
The rosebush in question is certainly very old. I can tell by its thick, heavy, gnarled roots, which have obviously been hacked back many times, and severely. Out of the heavy, gnarled stumps grow thinner, newer shoots with delicate white double blooms tinged very subtly with pink.
We’ve all been hacked back severely. Something will grow out of it, I guess.
Jack Graves plans to return with his “Point of View” in the fall. This column has been started in response to a reader request for more female voices on the Editorials page.