The sun is shining and the birds are singing in Richland Center, Wisconsin – our little town of 5,000 souls on the banks of the Pine River, 61 miles west of the capitol in Madison. I step outside to begin my morning therapy walk. I greet a couple walking by with their baby in a stroller and dog in tow. Three kids who would normally be in school breeze by on bicycles. The neighbors on the corner are having new energy-efficient windows installed, and the neighbors down the street are getting seamless gutters. Two men by the truck call out instructions to a co-worker atop a ladder. A school bus comes by; a woman climbs out to deliver a school lunch to a neighbor kid. No-one is wearing a mask.
The crab-apple blossoms are just a few weeks away from bursting out and dropping all over the lush-green well-fertilized grass, which our ambitious landlord mowed Saturday. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
I begin my laps in the hospital parking lot next door. The softer asphalt is kinder to my bursitis than concrete sidewalks. I look at the hospital and think of my friends whose son Steven died there this past week from COVID-19. I see signs pointing to a testing station in the hospital maintenance building. Out of the corner of my eye I notice as a car pulls up hesitantly, pauses 100 yards away and then moves ahead slowly. It waits only a few moments before the door rolls open and then closes behind the driver, in whose place I hope never to be. Fifteen minutes later a somber hospital worker emerges with a small cooler to walk at a quick pace toward the hospital. She is wearing a mask.
The next day it’s another sunny morning, but cold in Richland Center, the place of my birth in the hospital I see from my window every day. I decide to go to the cemetery. I see my friend Harry up the street, returning from his mailbox. His house is across from the home where two men are still installing energy-efficient vinyl windows. I head up the hill past Dr. Moen’s empty dentist’s office and Stori Field. I walk regularly around the old track here in the summer when the ground is warm on my bare feet, a practice called earthing. I imagine being at one of the many football games and track meets that were held here before the new high school and athletic field were built. My Ithaca Bulldogs won a track championship here in 1969.
Halfway up the hill I come upon a work crew roofing a house. I count four of them up on the roof; no-one is wearing a mask. I wonder if Steven might not have died if we had all been wearing masks a month ago.
The cemetery comes into view as I crest the hill. The view up the Pine Valley beyond the graves is breathtaking. As I come down the hill on the other side I look for the memory markers in my brain that direct me to the graves of my grandparents. There they are, Wayne and Leona Long. Wayne was killed in a car accident in 1946, five years before I was born. My brother, Alan Wayne, who recently passed, was named for him.
Leona met Wayne in the early 1900s while homesteading with her grandmother in South Dakota; she lived to be 105. I was blessed to know Grandma for 42 years. I don’t remember her ever wearing a mask but she probably did in a time long, long ago but not so different than what we are living through today.
On the other side of Grandpa and Grandma’s stone is the marker for my Uncle Max, who was developmentally challenged, and my Aunt Florence, who died in 1920 at the age of 3. My mother, Bernice, would have been just 2. Aunt Kathryn was 7 and Max was 5. I imagine them, a struggling farm family from Buck Creek, gathered around that grave still mourning my Uncle Robert who had died of the flu on Christmas Eve 1918, at the age of 4. I wonder if they were wearing masks as they listened to the preacher pray over Florence’s little grave.
And I wonder if Florence and Robert were among the 20 million to 50 million casualties of the Spanish Flu pandemic that infected 500 million souls around the world between January 1918 and December 1920. I don’t know; my grandmother was reluctant to talk about it.
I walk on among the graves spotting many who died during that period, wondering if any of them died from that terrible plague. I pass a stone etched with the words, “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us.” And I find myself singing the first verse of an old Gospel favorite.
“Much we need thy tender care,
In thy pleasant pastures feed us,
For our use thy folds prepare.”
Suddenly my reverie is interrupted by the sound of my phone ringing; I forgot to put it in cemetery mode. I answer it to hear a recorded voice say, “We have been trying to reach you about your expired insurance policy.” I hang up and head home … wearing my mask.