by Tara Teeling
As a child, one of my favourite things was listening to my grandparents talk about their childhoods. I was enthralled, my mind conjuring visuals that filled me with magic and nostalgia for a time I’d never known. I’d felt a kind of desperation to know all the details, to know how mundane, everyday things were done, what the world sounded like, how people interacted. I had artefacts around me, like the antique flip toaster on her counter or the old-fashioned hand-beater that I would turn the handle of feverishly. It made the most peaceful, whirring sound as it whipped the dreamy, summer air. I wanted to hear about the clack of heels on pavement, the tearful reunions of lovers after the war, and how my grandmother managed to perfect those silky Victory rolls in her hair. When I wanted to hear something a little darker, I would ask my grandfather to talk about his life during the Great Depression, knowing he’d experienced it on a level my grandmother hadn’t. He was always game to share, never secretive in the way soldiers are when it comes to talking about war. Perhaps it was because he got through it and was grateful for what he now had, or maybe he wanted me to understand the riches of the life I led.
“What do you mean you didn’t have butter?!”, I would exclaim, aghast. “What did you put on bread?!”
“We’d smear lard on it,” he’d say with a bemused smile.
“That’s disgusting!” I’d squeal with horrified delight.
To wash his face, he’d use water from the rain barrel. To eat, you had to be resourceful, and be ready to clean your plate of whatever you were fortunate enough to have. Sometimes, he said, you would be lucky to find an apple tree that hadn’t
been picked over, and, if it was, you made do with what you could gather from the ground below it: bruised, worm-traveled and browning. If you had to kill an animal to eat, you did it. Rabbits, squirrels, and all types of birds were part of the food chain. Eating was not about pleasure; it was solely about survival.
“Our meals were very plain,” he’d say, “but you were grateful to have it, whatever it was.”
His house was cold, his clothes flared with holes, his shoes mauled his feet.
“Everyone was going through it,” he’d said. “It wasn’t a comfortable time, but at least everyone was in the same boat.” Then, he’d get a faraway look in his eye and puff on his pipe while I tried to mentally transport to his world to get a better look. I was so offended by the stories of the food that he’d had to eat during those days
that I didn’t give a lot of thought to how he’d spent his time. He wasn’t a reader, my grandfather, and I’d never known him to have any hobbies that didn’t involve a late day glass of whiskey or a White Owl cigar. When I thought about this, I had to wonder how he would through a day without food as a distraction, or television, or music.
“We didn’t think about it,” he’d said simply when I asked. “We didn’t have the luxury to feel bored.”
He’d had to leave school when he was thirteen to work. He had to support his mother, sister and brother after his father left the family. Education wasn’t important when survival was at stake, and, as the oldest child, it fell upon him to take the lead. There was no point in questioning any of it, no room to complain. Questioning and complaining wouldn’t put food on the table.
I could not fathom having to quit school to go to work just to make sure that everyone had enough lard to slather on bread. As much as I surely complained about school as a child, I had never thought of education as less than a fundamental right. Listening to my grandfather, knowing what he’d left behind to help his family, I recognized the gift of his sacrifice which filled me with a blend of ire and awe.
“Doesn’t it make you mad, Grandpa, that you had to give up school to go to work?” I’d ask, enraged.
“No,” he’d puff on his pipe thoughtfully, shaking his head, “Back then, that’s just what we had to do. There was no use in thinking otherwise. If you didn’t work hard, you wouldn’t make it. You couldn’t just expect everything to be okay. You had to do what you needed to do to make it okay”.
He lived to be 82 years old. He never had much, seemed content with a full refrigerator and gas in his tank, a 4 o’clock tumbler of whiskey, and a cigar that emitted blue, hazy smoke as the sun went down. He always had a cheeky smile, as though he was secretly a rich man who chose to live off the grid. In some ways, that’s exactly what he was. Perspective, it would seem, is everything.
For a long time, I couldn’t understand how he so easily accepted a life that seemed to have had its fair amount of disappointments and hardship. Born one year after the Spanish flu died off, his life ended well before the onslaught of COVID-19. This past little while, I’ve been thinking about him, wondering how he would have dealt with the restrictions imposed during this ongoing pandemic. Would he have had the same attitude as he did about his early years? Would he have looked back at his history to develop a strategy to cope with this new one?
As I reflect on my grandfather’s stories, as well as my own experiences with economic and personal hardship, I assert that there is more than one kind of hunger that needs to be sated in every one of us.
There is the obvious physical hunger that takes precedence over all else. We are machines that need fuel, or we do not function. In a world where food can be a distraction, compulsion, or hobby, it’s easy to lack appreciation for how hard it is for others to come by. Now that we have such stringent rules about social distancing, it has become necessary that we develop a careful strategy to “hunt and gather” so as not to encounter others as we stand in a line to gain entry to the grocery store. For those whose finances have been destroyed by COVID-19, rationing food is part of a new or recycled reality, reminiscent of a time when the hungry had to eat dry, hard bread unless they had lard to spread on it. If we have the basics, if we aren’t starving, then we are not just fortunate: we live in luxury.
We have an intrinsic hunger for knowledge. In a world where information is consumed daily with an unconscious appetite, we don’t always consider the value in what it is we choose to take in. Education is available to everyone now, with infinite data and the teachings of experts ready at the click of a button. Eighty years ago, education was a privilege, but now, it’s ready for you whenever you decide you want it. With the emergence of accessible learning, it doesn’t matter how old you are, what hours you work, or where you live. The knowledge is there waiting for you to take advantage of it. You may train for a new career while working in your current one, and the sacrifices you may have to make to follow your new path will be small in comparison those which others have made in the past. We should all be advocates for lifelong learning; it feeds something within that stokes our curiosity. To understand, to master something new, is what it is to feel alive.
Many of us possess an intangible hunger. This spiritual hunger is not necessarily religious, but more akin to a lack of personal fulfillment. Staring dead-eyed out a window losing time is the quickest way to become depressed or anxious. Too much thought given to what “never was” and what “might be” rather than what “is” can be incredibly impactful on one’s negative perceptions and help them to bloom into something beyond control. In the wake of recent events, one very specific form of spiritual hunger is tied to the lack of interpersonal contact and the human need to
connect. What is unique about the experience of self-isolation is that for some, they don’t just feel alone, they are alone. Those of us who are living with friends or family might find the walls are a bit close, but we are lucky to share our space with people we can engage and share with. It’s so important to reach out to those you know who may live without others, to re-establish the community around them and help them feel linked to something larger. For them, the silence of an empty house can be much
louder than you would expect. We have the means to do this through technology which provides us with a voice, a pen, a face and a heart in the absence of physical proximity. You may have an empty house but there is always a way to connect with a friend or family member. When you consider this, you realize that you’re never really on your own.
Covid-19 is a shared experience. Everyone is dealing with the same restrictions but what differs how we choose to handle them. Now is the perfect time to explore your interests, to revisit a hobby you once had but left behind for reasons you cannot remember. What part of yourself have you forgotten existed? What gave you joy without compromise? Isn’t it time to take it back?
I understand that it seems a bit of a longshot to focus on what good might be coming from this situation, but I think there is value in being mindful of the benefits. My observations include seeing a trend of autonomy amongst our students who have adapted to learning remotely without any sort of break in their training. Learners who initially felt completely out of their comfort zone have thrived on their own, showing us, and themselves, how able they really are for change. I’ve had friends I haven’t spoken with in ages call me just to see if I’m okay. There have been chaotic, yet wonderful, group conversations using webcams and conference call apps, and nights
cuddled up on the couch, wrapped in a cozy blanket, watching films I’ve had in my queue but haven’t had the time to watch until now. I finally finished two books I’ve been trying to get to, baked the perfect batch of brownies, and shared long, rambling messages with friends on social media that have had me laughing until my sides hurt. I watch every single animal video that people forward me, and never tire of them. I’ve taken long walks at night and been mesmerized by the sparkling planets above and the blanketed peace of the city streets. I have heard the chatter of frogs and the
distant, mournful howl of coyotes, and all of it seemed like music. While there is some value in watching the news to stay current on what is happening, it is largely a practice in self-destruction to feed upon it, failing to recognize that, to some extent, it is more production than genuine information. It may be less harmful on an emotional and mental level to concentrate on what is instead of what was or what might be.
There is no clear answer at this time as to when things will return to normal, and though I worry about how this will affect our country economically, I cannot deny that there are some things I’m fine with staying as they are. I like that life has slowed down to a livable speed again, that we have been able to reassess what’s important and what isn’t. I am grateful for the time with my family, sharing frustrations, yes, but also finding humour in recognizing that our complaints are related to staying home,
something we usually wish we could do. I feel fortunate to know a wide variety of people with very different political views but who ultimately share the same desire to protect each other, no matter what personal beliefs they hold.
Yes, there will be economic consequences resulting from this period of
isolation. However, if I examine the stories my grandfather gave me, I can plainly see that it’s survival that matters, that personal strength is boundless and if you have that, you have a way out. Sometimes, we need to look back in order to move forward. He was a happy person when he finally passed away. The hard times that he told me about represented a brief period of his life that did not ultimately define him or permanently alter who he was.
It will be okay again. It always is. What we need to do is prepare ourselves for change, to find ways to adjust as smoothly as possible and to stock ourselves with the right knowledge and viewpoint to move forward. If we do that, then we can say we did it right, and we can share the story with our own grandchildren. We learned, we shared, we broke bread.