When I was a kid, I was fairly obsessed with history. Not so much the memorizing dates and battlefields but the day-to-day lives of people in the past. This sparked an interest in collecting old photographs which were quite literally a dime a dozen in antique shops. I love photography but I was fascinated by the older photographs which were often portraits with just a name and age scribbled on the back.
During one of my excursions, I came across some old letters. There were only three or so, all addressed to the same woman in Maine from a man called Leon. For years, I thought the recipient of the letters was a woman called Olive. It wasn’t until much later that I realized her name was actually Alice, not Olive. This cracked the first clue in researching who this woman was and who her penpal was as well. It’s sad to read the letters, just one half of the conversation; Alice’s letters in turn to Leon weren’t in my possession.
My young mind imagined perhaps it was a WWI-era romance taking place even if the letters didn’t feel particularly ‘Notebook’-y but census records corrected me. Alice and Leon were cousins whose families had lived together in Maine before Leon enlisted in the Navy. Stationed on the USS Quincy, he wrote in one letter, obviously in response to Alice expressing concern about the Spanish flu, that he didn’t even want to talk about that “bad stuff”.
I know how he feels! These days, we’re all bombarded with Coronavirus news, checking in on each other, wishes to ‘stay safe’. It’s hard to have anything else to talk about except how we’re doing in social distancing and isolation. But Alice and Leon talked about everything but the epidemic in their time, leaving it as just a small note in one of their exchanges. “I don’t want to talk about that, it’s upsetting”. The end.
Things that feel all-consuming in the moment often end up as just a footnote in our personal histories. That huge test you failed in school, the crush who saw you staring at him, the embarrassing presentation you gave in class. In the moment, they were catastrophic but in the long run; just a blip. I’m not saying this pandemic isn’t catastrophic or upsetting, it’s certainly worth a good chapter in history but it doesn’t have to define our lives or futures. What else are we learning in this time, about ourselves, our friends, our values?