Like many people struggling to understand our present moment, and to prepare for what is coming, I’ve turned, this week, to books, to history.
Life can change quickly, both then and now. Take Mary McCarthy’s straightforward description of boarding a Minneapolis-bound train in Seattle with her parents and three younger brothers during the 1918 worldwide influenza pandemic: “Waving good-bye in the Seattle depot, we had not known that we carried the flu into our drawing rooms…but, one after another, we had been struck down as the train proceeded eastward” (Memories of a Catholic Girlhood). McCarthy’s parents died shortly after the stricken family was carried from the train. I’ve reread Katherine Anne Porter’s devastating “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” This short story spells out the reality that while individuals may survive pandemics, these diseases irrevocably alter our society. I keep thinking of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, a children’s picture book, which matter-of-factly describes the burning of a little boy’s favorite toy due to its contamination during his confinement with scarlet fever.
More cheerfully, I’ve also turned, as I usually do sooner or later, to Betty MacDonald. Betty’s follow up to her worldwide best selling first autobiographical book, The Egg and I, was The Plague and I, a tartly poignant recounting of her battle with and recovery from tuberculosis in a pre-antibiotic-era King County, Washington sanatorium. When Betty was admitted to Firland (called The Pines in Plague), tuberculosis was endemic worldwide. Betty’s was one of nearly two thousand cases diagnosed in Seattle in 1938. Tuberculosis still strikes today.
Firland patients lived in almost complete isolation from society, and—as much as was possible in shared rooms—from one another. The cure was mainly resting, supine, without talking or even reading. Difficult as the experience was for her, Betty’s memoir crackles with her trademark humor: “Being sent to an institution, be it penal, mental or tuberculous, is no game of Parcheesi, and not knowing when, or if, you’ll get out doesn’t make it any easier. At least a criminal knows what his sentence is.”
Despite Firland’s rigid rules governing patient interaction, living in close quarters meant coming to know her roommates’ strengths and weaknesses. “From my stay at The Pines,” Betty MacDonald explained, “I learned that a stiff test for friendship is: ‘Would she be pleasant to have t.b. with?'” Of the many women Betty roomed with during her time at Firland, her favorite was a young Japanese-American woman named Kazuko Monica Itoi. Kazi appears in Plague under the pseudonym “Kimi.” “Unfortunately,” Betty added, “too many people, when you try separating them from their material possessions and any and all activity, turn out to be like cheap golf balls. You unwind and unwind but you never get to the pure rubber core because there isn’t any. When I started unwinding Kimi I found that under her beautiful covering she was mostly core.” This friendship endured through the two women’s recovery and hospital discharge, and Kazi’s internment in Minidoka War Relocation Camp during World War II. At the height of her own success, Betty encouraged Kazi (by then married and using the name Monica Sone) to write about her experiences. The result, Nisei Daughter, provides an understanding of yet another form of isolation.
Betty and Monica’s accounts of isolation were on my mind as I maintained my now-prescribed six feet of social distance from fellow neighbors circling the path atop the lidded-over Maple Leaf Reservoir in north Seattle. We ventured from our homes this sunny day, smiling encouragement to one another while shunning contact. Isolation is different now, softened somewhat by podcasts, audio books, and streaming video. We have our social media, alternately comforting or alarming, depending on who you follow. I try to apply Betty’s standard in making that choice: look for someone who is mostly core.
I’ve not been subject to true quarantine, as I will be if Covid-19 touches me directly. I can still walk the spookily empty streets and circle the track, all the while keeping my distance. I am living a little of what Betty learned during her quarantine: health is not a given. Friendship runs deep, even when friends have been moved down the hall or aren’t allowed to visit you. Community sustains, and it is up to us to find ours even when aspects of our lives are constrained. Life, all of it, needs to be noticed. It must be deeply noticed.
Paula Becker is the author of the biography Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I and the memoir A House on Stilts: Mothering in the Age of Opioid Addiction.