When our college kids were ordered to leave their campuses abruptly in March 2020 and return home, I immediately rented a 7’x7’ portable unit from PODS, a storage and moving company. The container was delivered onto the driveway and held the contents of their dorm rooms as they tried to finish the semester on-line, sitting in their childhood bedrooms.
We soon understood what staying healthy in a pandemic pod was about. Every day brought more bad news of death, loneliness and uncertainty as we grappled with the reality of a lock-down that was not going to go away by Easter. When our son’s May 2020 graduation from college was officially cancelled, we were dejected, but numb from the soaring Covid-19 infection rates.
Thankfully, all our four children were safely doing remote learning and my husband, Mike, and I were able to continue working virtually. Outside our bubble, nearby neighborhoods were groaning with the pain of overwhelmed hospitals, food pantry lines, and unemployment. Our family pulled on gloves and masks to help with collections for essential workers. The images of systemic racial injustice and violence erupting across our country was further evidence to me of a void in moral leadership, a contactless world spinning out of control.
Our anxiety increased as the daily barrage of discouragement crescendoed – the Tokyo Olympics, swarms of locusts in Africa, California wildfires and record-breaking hurricanes. The assaults on our fragile mental states continued as the death toll rose. A native New Yorker, I mourned that the lights were still down on Broadway and feared that economic impact from the eerie emptiness of restaurants, Chinatown, museums and office buildings would be irreversible. Under the stress of social distancing and the sobering reality of limited quantities of groceries like meat, toilet paper and even Grape Nuts cereal, we were impatient to feel normal again. We missed seeing our family and friends.
After months of sheltering in place at home, my husband Mike and I made an effort to clear out the garage to make room for the stuff still in the PODS unit. We filled a dumpster with junk. In the pile to take to Goodwill (if they ever re-opened for donations), I put an ornate lamp made of the steel rollers that once pressed patterned wallpaper in a Kimberly-Clark paper mill where my husband’s grandfather worked his way up. We had items that were bequeathed years ago by his uncle, including a handmade clock and sets of Spode dishes. There was the antique sideboard, with the Larkin Soap Co. label certifying it was a genuine heirloom; it had perfectly matched the tiger oak floors in our first apartment.
The garage was dusty, cobwebs everywhere. Each time I opened a box, I stepped back when I lifted the lid in case something scurried out. I peered in a stack of books. A swarm of insects moved on the side of the cardboard. I nearly chucked the entire thing into the dumpster but something caught my eye when I saw a glint. The size of a hardcover encyclopedia, it was a maroon pleather jewelry case with a tarnished clasp. I brought it out into the sunlight and opened it. There were small suede boxes, deluxe in their glory days, and leather pouches filled with medals and pendants, less than an inch long, mostly silver colored. Some medals were oval, some were round. I fingered the engraved images – a person in robes, a head encircled in a halo, hands in prayer, a symbol of the cross, angel wings. Words stamped on the pendants read, “St. Francis,” “Pray for Us,” “Guardian Angel.”
“It’s junk,” my husband said. “Toss it.”
Part of me knew these were souvenirs, or as he explained, faux jewelry purchased from a church’s gift shop or trinkets mailed in acknowledgement of a charitable donation. The other part of me recognized mercy and hope.
I paused on my driveway with the saint medals, the angel medals, the Our Lady medals, the pendants with the sign of the dove cupped in my hands. I aspired for them, all the ridiculous and miraculous charms, to crown me with the aura of peace. In the tumult of this frightening, maddening and lost year, I longed be adorned with the remnants of faith gathering in the cardboard shadows of my garage.
This article first appeared in the 2021 anthology, Voices from the Attic, Vol 27/The Carlow University Press.