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The view from the home front

Even in a time of pandemic, life goes on. Here are stories from a community sheltered in place.

Sort of like the Waltons

I felt as though I were part of the old TV show “The Waltons,” except that people in the different squares were saying hello rather than goodnight, and they weren’t taking turns box by box, but rather, speaking all at once. This was a family Zoom meeting my daughter Kari was hosting to celebrate her husband Dave’s birthday. There was cake, but unfortunately only for them. Our family’s group singing is painful at best, but Zoom made this rendition of “Happy Birthday” beyond dreadful.

At first I could see only three other people across the top of the screen, though I could hear others. Someone told me to click the icon in the upper right, and suddenly my entire computer screen was filled with people I love. Dave’s mother was in the kitchen, her picture larger than other people’s, especially mine, as I had my screen tilted so as to show just the top of my head and my eyes.

Stella, my daughter Kim’s golden retriever, appeared with about the same amount of herself showing, and there was a chorus of laughter about the two of us looking alike. In a center square was Dave’s brother’s family in their kitchen, gathered around the table having supper.

Everyone was commenting on the scene but quieted down as the parental voices focused on Molly’s eating her vegetables. Kaitlyn, my oldest granddaughter, was sitting in her living room in Austin. To a chorus of “Where’s Steve?” her boyfriend leaned in to say hi. For those who hadn’t seen it, my daughter-in-law Becky showed off her new profile, having had major surgery to correct a problem with her jaw.

In Stella’s square, one of her people touted her amazing Yahtzee scores and another entered late, looking almost like an alien in his button-down shirt. Kari announced that she had people in the “waiting room.” Granddaughter Kaya came into her square from San Diego—speaking from her bed, where, as a nurse, she spends time between long shifts. Grandson Ben arrived from New Hampshire wearing his uniform—a hoodie. As at all family get-togethers, it wasn’t long before people clamored to see the state of his hair. He rolled back his hood and shook it out—the familiar unruly, thick, curly mop of dark brown. Obviously not the aftermath of the rare haircut.

The meeting—which lasted more than an hour—was chaotic, but wonderful. Just as each Walton had turned out their light, people’s squares began to go dark. It took me a while to find my “Leave the Meeting” button, and I panicked that I might be forever trapped alone in Zoom. Finally I was out, and I sat at my blank screen, simultaneously elated and bereft.

—Carlene Phillips, Oak Hill Road

Keep moving

Sunday was an almost spectacular day in a season loaded with the meaning of spiritual and seasonal rebirth. In one day, it seemed, the yellow forsythia bloomed, daffodils and tiny blue flowers popped out of the ground, a haze of red buds appeared on the gray branches of trees. Turtles sunned themselves on logs sticking up out of ponds. Squirrels and birds were chasing. Two kites rose up behind a rounded hill. Lambs were being born. People were digging and raking in yards and gardens.

People of all ages were out walking, alone, in pairs, or in small family groups. They were walking along the roadsides where neighbors greeted one another from across the road, or stood talking at a distance, sometimes for an hour or so. They were walking on the conservation land trails, stepping on stones to avoid the muddy areas. They were walking at the Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge. Some may have taken the often-flooded tank road to a beaver pond, gone under Route 2, and on into Devens. (Even state Sen. Jamie Eldridge was there on Sunday.) They were walking on the meandering sidewalks at the Cisco Systems campus off Beaver Brook Road in Boxborough, through rolling mowed hills and wooded landscaping.

It was just an almost spectacular day because a storm was coming the next day and the sky was not totally clear of clouds. And for weeks we have lived under the cloud of COVID-19. Gatherings with extended family and friends were conducted virtually or postponed until the pandemic is over. Our movements have been curtailed to essential outings. That means we are not gadding about visiting friends, doing nonessential errands, going into many workplaces, traveling. We are not going to our exercise classes. Many of us aren’t getting our usual amount of exercise (except for those gardeners who get plenty of exercise with all that bending and squatting, lifting and carrying, pulling and pushing, walking back and forth to the shed) and we may become deconditioned, a serious situation, especially for older people.

But we are fortunate that we live in an area that presents so many beautiful opportunities for walking. Walking isn’t just good for the body. It’s good for the spirit to get out in the fresh air, breathe deeply, observe nature, and maybe see new faces.

“This is what’s keeping me sane!” said a woman in the Holy Hill conservation area, waving her walking poles with outstretched arms in an arc that took in everything around her.

—Margaret Kusner, South Shaker Road


These are interesting times. There are none of the usual markers of a disaster: lost power and internet, homes and businesses destroyed, and random loss of life. Instead, we have a silent plague, set loose on an unsuspecting, interconnected world with no natural defenses in its path.

Of course COVID-19 preys on the elderly and the already sick, making a mockery of the technological prowess of health care in developed countries and ready to overwhelm the less prepared. Where profit is to be made by exclusion due to price, the systems that support it are not set up to care for the many, but instead to provide the “choice” of specialist care for those—more correctly the employers—who can afford it. The consequences of our choices are being tallied, and when the check arrives, how will we pay for it?

On an existential level, I am reminded of Thomas Mann’s great novel “The Magic Mountain,” which explores the passage of time, perceived and experienced. It tells the story of Hans Castorp who visits an ill cousin in a remote sanatorium high up in the Swiss Alps. Originally intending a short visit, Castorp instead is seduced by the seemingly permanent predictability of the daily routine there. Lodging, meals, companionship with fellow “sufferers,” the all-knowing staff, and rules that absolve one of initiative, all remind me of the current day. Our ether may come from different sources, but it’s safe to say that here in Harvard, few want things. Food is plentiful and readily accessible, we can take long walks in our beautiful town, coming back to safe housing, and we have screens large and small to while away our time. We are indeed fortunate.

As a freelancer working in motion pictures, I am not unaccustomed to the situation we all find ourselves in. For the gig economy of which I am a part, uncertainty is baked into the schedule on a weekly basis. Mine is not an essential service—witness the near instantaneous shutdown of the entertainment industry. We do not feed, we do not shelter, we do not care for the sick. We transmit the news, we create fun diversions for a leisure time that for a lot of us now is all the time. I worry that when the bills come due, Massachusetts will have hard choices to make on where it spends its money and the incentive in taxpayer money that lures Hollywood to our state to make “Little Women,” that keeps the film studios at Devens full, will not be deemed essential enough to continue supporting. And then, like Hans Castorp cast away from his Swiss idyll to the hell of trench warfare in World War I, there will be a reckoning.

— Mario Cardenas, Oak Hill Road

Bits of Easter love

The Easter parade came down Oak Hill Road a bit before 1 p.m. Sunday. I heard it before I saw it and was confused by the sound of horns. Soon they appeared—eight or nine cars, windows down, horns beeping, cars beribboned, and people calling out and waving. My parting view was a stuffed bunny popping out of a sunroof. 

I heard that around the same time, a T-Rex was making its way up East Bare Hill Road, its enormous head swinging from side to side. It was carrying a basket of colored eggs.

These were not the usual celebrations of Easter, but they brought the same joy and assurances of love and evoked the same sense of gratitude.

— Carlene Phillips, Oak Hill Road

Editor's Note: How are you coping with these unprecedented times?  The Press wants to know. We’ll take care of the news; but we need your help to tell the human side of this crisis. Send us a photo with a caption or an anecdote (up to 250 words) about how you are getting through your days. What is bringing you comfort? What insights have you gained? What have been your greatest challenges and how have you overcome them? Your photos and stories, antidotes to isolation, will help bring us closer together in this time of social distancing. Send to with subject “stories” and include your name and address.

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