Submitted by a country mouse
Seasons change. Like in the original tale, the city mouse visits the country mouse and the country mouse visits the city mouse. It was my turn to venture into a foreign land. For background, we had scheduled a fall visit to see my parents but a problem emerged. We were unvaccinated. My extended family posted frequently during the great vax shaming of ’21 that they would not see unvaccinated friends and family. Once we tallied up the totals, we were down to half my family avoiding us. We cancelled. I rescheduled for spring of ’22, knowing that after another winter wave that maybe they’d be over it. If not, at least better than the vax fight hysteria period. It was time to test that thesis. Are blue areas in blue states over covid?
Pre-flight Phone Call
“Why did you book an AirBnb? You can always stay with us,” my mom asked. This was a delicate topic. Our family has outgrown staying with my parents for visits in size and age. It had been four years since the last visit due to the covid interruption, and four years of aging gave us a teenager and no one in a crib anymore.
“We don’t want to impose, and with our own spot 4 streets over, you can stop by anytime and anyone can drop by to see us without worrying about invading your space,” I replied. It was true and a way for us to host my extended family at a party and then invite random family my wife has not too far away that may require an overnight stay without stressing my parents out. With a good change in urban covid attitudes, we might even get some of her family located in the heart of the nearby urban mass to visit.
“But why’d you rent a car,” my dad inquired.
“No one has to pick us up at the airport. That’s all,” it was the truth, “I like having my own wheels in case we do a spontaneous trip and don’t want to impose.”
“I don’t know if Aunt Phoebe will see you,” my dad followed up, “She’s not feeling great and still cautious.”
“We’ll see,” I answered, and we wrapped up with pleasantries. Aunt Phoebe was the last hold-out. She had been a vax shamer. Off my dad’s radar, she had also pivoted to Ukraine posting. The peacenik was now posting about sending anti-tank missiles and fighter jets to Ukraine. I thought she was ready to relax as she found a new bone to gnaw on.
Airports and Flights
The airports were filled with masked customers but pretty lax on enforcement. If you took yours off, no one shouted at you. I pulled mine down to talk clearly to a gate agent and received no rebuke. The airport looked nearly normal with fewer customers than fall ’19, but not too noticeable.
The flight itself was funnier. Everyone was masked but no one cared when you removed yours to talk or eat. Some pairs had their masks down the whole flight. Several passengers already had theirs down when the overhead instructions stressed how serious the airline was about surface cleaning and disinfecting. Knowing that cleanliness means nothing with containing covid, it was like an obsolete new product similar to 8 Tracks being installed in Gremlins. No flight attendant was rude when my older sons had their masks down to talk about the video game they played during the flight. The judicial end to the mask mandate only matched what was already happening. The surest sign of a change was no one wearing an N95 compared to flights I was on last spring. No one is wasting that money. The people online showing themselves taped up in three masks for coverage are the exception. The ten thousand likes they get might be the last ten thousand people who buy the effectiveness of that lunatic act.
The stop by the grocery store left us optimistic. I had to pick up the buffet order for the next day’s party. There was no mask mandate but around 30% of patrons were masked. They skewed older, and we were not looked at weird for being unmasked. Gas station mini-marts were back to normal, surly service without a smile. The one oddball was when I ran out for sandwiches from a shop I’d gone to for decades. No more in-store seating. They were 100% take-out. Weirder still was they did every order at the storefront with a makeshift intercom system. When it came time to pay, I put my credit card in what looked like a racetrack cashier divot and the masked attendant grabbed it with gloved hands, returning it via the divot. My sandwiches were delivered through a window on the side, bagged and left out for me. No contact. Before I went to bed, I turned on the local news to get a feel for the vibe. Report on nearby urban crime activity, what’s new in Ukraine, local interest story, sports, weather and the final bloc was a report on the drive to finish off vaccinations. They were somewhere in the high 60% range for vaccinations of residents over age 5. I went to bed wishing I was the local cardiologist.
Moment of truth. We had the party for my extended family and only had two last second cancellations. Both were from the covid cautious crowd. My Aunt Phoebe did not appear as well. She had texted me to let her know a good day to see us or maybe we could swing by her house. Of the twenty people who showed, only two wore masks. By the end of the party, the masks were down. It felt like our ’18 visit.
My extended family is older, and my sibling and cousins do not have children (zero young cousins for my boys to meet) so there is a feeling of stasis there. When they saw my kids, the natural, physical changes hit my aunts and uncles hard. The four years apart for many, some we hosted as guests during covid, were long as all my boys were talking more, developing personalities and in the case of my five year old, not a baby anymore. Life had become a stagnant moment for them. Hearing a child crack a silly joke who they last saw in diapers with a bald head shook them. I know some of my aunts cried tears of joy to see my kids, but I have to think there’s some sorrow in knowing what they were robbed. Some of it self-inflicted, sure, but some were bombarded with media messaging few could resist.
This wouldn’t have happened last fall when we wanted to visit, but the winter wave changed everything. As evident from Facebook posting and in the first ten minutes of chatting with each of them at the party, they all caught covid. They all survived. None were hospitalized. Some thanked the vaccine. Some said it was just a bad cold. The mystique was gone. One of my uncles even credited our crazy conspiracy uncle as being right all along. For 90% of these residents, covid is over.
It felt really normal being at a home base with constant visitors and then able to see others like previous trips. My wife’s relatives from further out even dropped in. We were treated with one impromptu visit from an urban resident. No masks even on them, but they reported that in the city, it is different. They also caught covid in the winter wave, and well, didn’t give a shit anymore. They had vacations planned for the summer.
The only real change I noticed in my hometown was all the empty storefronts. Chains remained. Many of the small businesses I grew up visiting were gone. They were there in ’18, but gone now. After quick questioning with my parents, I heard the same story repeated. Covid hurt them, and then the re-opening was too late and the owners were older, so they closed up.
The other change was in type of business. Not all of the store fronts were empty, but some of the small specialist stores, financial services and even the random blue collar employer were replaced with restaurants of the fusion, quirky foreign and cupcake/bakery persuasion. I could understand my dad’s weight gain after his covid inspired retirement. The new owner-operators were pushed out by the inflated rents of the nearby urban metro and set up shop in our small burb. I did not get to see the Little League teams, but I can imagine the hardware sponsor is replaced by Katie’s Cupcakes. I take that back. I am unsure if they have enough kids in the town for a Little League. It is a replacement of local merchant and municipal elites so they have rainbow flags and stickers outside those storefronts rather than American flags.
We had a dinner planned with a lifelong friend I keep in touch with, and his two kids are the same age as my two younger boys. Last night before our travel day so we’d let everyone stay up later. He was the childhood friend who always kept in touch. Us both being remote workers during covid got us texting with much more regularity than when we were growing our families. My Aunt Phoebe lived on the way to his house. I texted her again. She suggested Facetiming. I had enough. I can Facetime any day from anywhere. I called.
“Hey Phoebe, I’m going to be swinging by your area with the kids, can we stop by,” I asked. I just wanted to get there because I felt if we got there, we’d get her to relax and eventually get to hug her again.
“I got my booster but the problem is my immune system drops for two, three weeks after, and then I am careful because I never know how fast it will get to boosted protection,” she replied. I don’t know if any of that was true, but why argue?
“But you’re boosted, and we’re clean as a whistle. It’ll be a few minutes. We have a dinner to go to with the kids anyway so it won’t be long,” I was pleading. It was silent for a bit.
“Just honk your horn when you’re outside,” she said and hung up. We packed and assembled the team in the rental for the night out. My wife was annoyed at the thought of a drive by wave in ’22. When we got in her driveway, I honked. My aunt texted me to go to the window to the left of her front door. We got out and walked to find her sitting masked on the inside with the window up but screen in place.
We talked a few feet from the window through the screen. We exchanged greetings, and she asked the boys what they were doing. Five minutes turned into ten and ten into fifteen. She was happy to see them, and with her divorce years in the past and my cousin unwilling to provide her with a grandchild, I know it was a good moment for her. My oldest has gotten into reading more challenging books, and she loves to read, so she gave him suggestions. We had to get going. The only hiccup came when my youngest asked if he could hug her goodbye and she flatly said, “no”. We waved, said our I love yous, and got back in the car.
My wife deftly pivoted the boys to focusing on the night of fun trampoline action ahead of them. There was no pivot for me. I thought about the aunt who called me excited after the birth of each son, the aunt who called at every Christmas, and the aunt who playfully told my uncle to kiss off when he wanted to leave a family gathering when she was holding one of my kids. She gave my oldest son a copy of Catcher in The Rye and wrote “You’re 13 now and maybe you can get this book and explain it to me because I sure as hell didn’t get it”. It hurt. It hurt to think she is old enough that this is the last time she sees them and that’s the final memory. It was a confirmation of her change during covid. She had slowed the calls, withdrawn from life and become a Facebook covid poster. No touching. No “sorry sweetie”. Just no. We’re never getting some people back. My aunt is one of them.
We arrived at my friend’s house, and the kids bonded quickly. His wife remarked on the quick blend, and I pointed out that my friend and I became best of friends by lunch his first day at our school. Our wives got along twenty years ago when we were all just dating, and social media had kept them in touch enough to make the evening easy. By the time the kids were worn out from trampolining, tree climbing and had crashed to play video games in the entertainment cave, my friend ran me through twenty questions about where I lived. Covid was allowing him to be full time remote from now on, his sister had moved away and he was tired of all of this. All of this was what had happened to our light red burb that was now blue.
I heard just how bad the covid tyranny was. Mask shaming. Vax shaming, of course. Children were wearing masks to play basketball even this winter. The hesitancy to commit to any plans was still an issue. His uncle died of a heart attack early last year and they were allowed 20 visitors for a graveside service. George Floyd had four mega-funerals in 2020. None of his family saw the insanity of the difference when he grumbled about it. He wanted to buy a gun after seeing police inaction in ’20 but did not know anyone in real life he’d ask for advice or to go practice. He watches covid numbers still just to prepare for whatever changes may come to the state’s protocols. Despite being in his hometown, he discusses only the most anodyne topics.
I told him four years had felt like twenty away. He was not wrong in his observations and not alone. It’s like our small suburb went through gentrification because it had been passed over a generation ago for growth. He was remote now though. No longer tied to the headquarters. He only had to be an hour from a commercial airport and an office. He had looked at where the offices were for his mega-corp. Like mine, Kansas City was a hub. He looked over at his wife talking with her hands to mine with a wild kid story and then back at me and asked, “Really… Just how different is it in your area”.