A few days ago, desperate to get out of my apartment, I ventured outside. I walked along Broadway on the Upper West Side in the middle of a fine sunny afternoon. It wasn’t difficult to keep the requisite six feet away from others because the normally crowded sidewalk was almost empty–except for the homeless people. In recent years, their numbers in New York have grown alarmingly; now, in our new, sudden dystopia, they seemed to have doubled overnight. Most were sitting, holding out their hands and begging for money. But one, a man, rushed up right beside me as I walked, saying, “Please, please, give me something so I can eat.” I kept walking, but my conscience pricked at me. After he had moved on to another pedestrian, I took some bills out of my wallet to distribute. I approached one woman who was crouched on the curb, but suddenly I stopped myself: she, like any of us, I thought, could be a COVID-19 carrier. Not a good idea to get so close to her. So I backed away and kept walking, and did not stop until I returned to my apartment, some 20 minutes later.
Once inside, I felt a confused jumble of emotions: fear of this modern-day plague and how it might overturn our lives, shame for putting my wellbeing over that of the homeless woman, and guilt over having the means to assuage my shame by giving extra donations to some of the private organizations who care for the needy. That was followed by more guilt over my never having known poverty. God knows, my mother did: Born in 1922, she’d been a child during the Great Depression and never let a day go by without reminding me. She also lived through the Second World War, safely in America, I might add. Even so, she knew what it felt like to live in scary times, in a way that I, born at the height of the baby boom, when America was at its richest and most powerful, do not.
Until now. Now, I’m telling my millennial children, one of them himself a parent, that to my generation the current uncertainty feels daunting. What would my mother say if she were still alive? I keep thinking about her, and my grandmother, whose recipes for chicken soup and potato kugel I cook for my children and grandchildren on Jewish holidays, and my father, a depressed and troubled soul who died 15 years ago, and his three sisters, my aunts, all of whom adored me. I am seized with a suddenly reactivated grief over all my family members who are gone, some long gone. All of whom knew hardship and loss in a way I’ll never know. Maybe if they were here with me now, they would comfort me. Remind me that they, too, faced uncertainty. Terrible uncertainty. Like my mother’s Tante Feigel, who’d left behind her daughters in Europe. She’d come to New York in the late 1930s, and her daughters were supposed to follow her. But their letters stopped coming.
That evening after my walk up Broadway, my grief felt oppressive. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went to my closet and opened the sliding door. Inside, on a shelf, was an afghan. My grandmother and mother crocheted it together, one mitered square at a time, in late 1945 while they sat with my grandfather in a Jersey City hospital, where he lay, sick with leukemia. He died in January 1946. The afghan is beautiful, made of squares in shades of light pink, lavender, caramel, light green, yellow, and salmon, each bordered in black. The wool they used is still sturdy and fine; it has not pilled. My mother always kept this afghan, folded, at the foot of her bed. I once asked her, “Doesn’t this blanket have a terrible association for you?” I don’t remember her answer. To me, the afghan always felt a comfort. When my mother died, it became mine.
Now, I took the afghan out of the closet, went to the living room, sat on the couch, and spread it over my lap. Its warmth filled me. My cat, Thelma, came over to me, purred, rubbed her cheek against the wool, and arranged a place for herself on top of the crocheted squares. My mother adored her father, and I suddenly realized why she treasured this gentle reminder of her first, devastating loss: there’s an odd and necessary connection between grief and comfort. And now, as the entire planet tries desperately to navigate through this sudden cataclysm, it’s natural that we find ourselves contemplating the traumas suffered long ago by the people we loved, grieve them anew, and feel comforted by our memories.