I turned fifty-three years old two weeks ago. No one would normally place any significance on this particular birthday, but during a pandemic it seems like a significant milestone. Physically isolated in my suburban home in Indiana, thoughts about the coming days, months, and even years invite dystopian scenarios usually left to Aldous Huxley or Margaret Atwood.
I spent my last birthday, all twenty-four hours of it, traveling from Morocco to Indiana, where I live. I left Casablanca at what would have been 10:00 PM EST on March 17 and didn’t arrive back in Lafayette until 2:00 AM EST on March 19. Since then, I promised myself that the next birthday would be better, a celebration.
One year later, I feel wistful when I think of that god-awful flight, jumping from plane to plane as I made my way home through Paris and Atlanta.
I usually take stock on my birthday. I am writing a book, and it is taking too long. If this was any other year I would take out paper and pen, break down tasks for the coming year into manageable pieces. The subsequent sense of control over my life, though fleeting, would have been just a little gift to myself.
But this year I don’t want to reflect on the future. I don’t know if my retirement funds will dissipate. If my seventy-two-year-old husband with preexisting conditions will test positive. If I will forage for food out in the woods after we consume the emergency supply of canned goods in our COVID-19 closet.
I don’t want to think in the future tense, so I delve instead into some boxes in an upstairs closet. Their contents call up the past, photos, diaries, and other odd objects that I have saved over the past forty-five years or so.
I cannot be the only one to look to the past for comfort in these scary times.
My diaries trace a troubled childhood in an alcoholic home. Letters from pen pals communicate my intentions of getting out, visiting foreign places. Beatles memorabilia reminds me of adolescent escape. A scrapbook with theatre reviews earnestly dedicated in green magic marker to “the writers of the modern world.”
Traveler-Writer-Historian: I became the woman I wanted to be.
I find an old mood ring. I haven’t worn it in forty years, probably more. I pick it up, wondering what color it will turn when its wearer fears the apocalypse. I squeeze the ring onto the tip of my pinky, but its crystal stays dark.
In high school, a friend had written out her doubts and fears on a yellow sheet from a legal notepad. I seek answers in the poem she constructed from them:
There inside the darkness
All alone and by myself
I may listen without pressure
To hear the real me talk.
She died four years ago, just a week before she turned fifty years old.
A fragile, brown envelope contains photos of my grandma. She is young, maybe younger than I would be when she died. I still carry the memorial card from her funeral in my wallet. She died the day I turned twenty-one.
I asked her once if she remembered the influenza pandemic of 1918.
“Yes,” she said.
I pressed her for more.
“Yes,” she said. “I knew people who died.”
Photos show my grandma’s aspiration to achieve Clara Bow’s “It Girl” glamour in the 1920s. She bobbed her hair and put on a loose dress with a drop waist. In the photos, she sits on the steps of an unfamiliar brick building, their arms draped around each other.
My grandma does not show signs of the sadness she later conveyed when she talked about the past. Her Irish Catholic family disapproved of her writing, so she never published racy novels about adventurous women. Instead, she married a janitor who blew most of his paychecks trying for a big trifecta payout. She gave birth to stillborn girl, and she raised two boys, my father and his bipolar brother.
Someday I, too, will be no more than a nearly forgotten story conjured up by such ephemera. This birthday realization makes me sad, but, also, strong, reconciled to life’s frailty, which existed long before the pandemic of my time.
Stacy E. Holden is an associate professor of history at Purdue University. Her research focuses on the modern Arab world. She is currently writing a midlife travel narrative that traces Edith Wharton’s 1917 trip to Morocco.