I sat quietly at a row of long rectangular tables. My wife, Heather, and my two-year-old son Lucas sat to my left, with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew adjacent to us. Country renditions of familiar hymns flowed from an inconspicuous speaker in the corner of the fellowship hall of a small, rural Lutheran church. Just two tables over from where I was sitting, a spread of cold cuts and finger food lined another long table. As I processed every smell, sound, and the overall vibe of the room, I realized how much this event felt like a funeral.
However, it wasn’t a memorial service—at least not in the sense of remembering the deceased. In fact, it was the 90th birthday party for my grandmother, Verna O. Hepler (née Moyer). Little did I realize that within the month following that celebration, I would be writing the reflections I could have written for the party.
My mother had asked me to prepare some remarks for my grandmother, but I couldn’t find the right words. Every time I pondered what I might write, it felt too much like a eulogy. The reality is, I couldn’t have written these reflections at that time, because I hadn’t fully discovered my creative inspiration: a pandemic.
On that sunny Sunday afternoon in early March, COVID-19 had only just begun to be observably spread through community transmission. I was concerned about how the disease might run its course, but mostly able to convince myself that my anxieties were extreme. Within the following weeks, it became apparent that my fears weren’t unfounded—a horrific pandemic began to have widespread impact on all populations.
It all felt relatively distant at first, but slowly it became more tangible. First, my son’s daycare closed, making my wife and me struggle to resolve childcare. Then, non-essential businesses began to close, Heather and I both working from home with our toddler. Stay-at-home orders drew closer and closer, until finally, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was closed. Shortly afterward, the rest of the state and most of the nation had closed. My family, along with millions of other families around the country, found ourselves in an alternate reality.
A Change in Behavior
While I still had my job, I found myself washing Ziploc bags to reuse them, putting gently used parchment paper sheets back in the drawer, bleaching and rinsing foam egg cartons, and saving cuttings of potatoes with “eyes” for the purpose of planting them. I even ventured into the yard to clip dandelion greens for a salad. I realized I was behaving strangely, but mostly chalked it up to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It all started to make sense to me when my sister sent me a text message about something she read on social media; “Does anyone else have grandparents who do weird stuff that was explained by the fact that they lived through the Great Depression? We’re going to be those grandparents: ‘Daddy, why is grandma Clorox-wiping the grocery bags?’ ‘She lived through COVID-19, honey. She doesn’t talk about it.’”
It was surreal how true this meme was. My grandmother was known to collect a lot of recyclable items, which we usually explained with the logic of: “She lived through the Great Depression.”
I then realized that everything we had observed in our grandmother might actually be pandemic lessons we need right now.
1 – Simplicity
Born in 1930, my grandmother entered the world just months after the stock markets had crashed. Having been raised in a large dairy-farming family in rural Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, my grandmother learned the practice of simple living as a compulsory reality. The oldest of her siblings, Verna reached the eighth grade and was forced to leave school like many other children, in order to help with the family farm.
Later, working as a seamstress in a textile factory, mostly providing the sole income for her four children, she knew how to stretch a dollar. As a child, my cousins and I were quick to question our grandmother’s seemingly odd behavior. We grimaced at the thought of eating dandelion greens with hot bacon dressing. Baffled by the piles of reused pudding cups, we sadly wrote off much of Verna’s frugality as unnecessary.
My grandmother was simply ahead of her time. She was “green” before it was hip. Now, I look back at my grandmother’s pursuit of simple living and say, “What an inspiration.” She actually showed me how to reduce and reuse things in ways that have helped to prepare me for a time like this, providing unintended pandemic lessons along the way.
2 – Creativity
As a young child, I had a love-hate relationship with trips to my grandmother’s house. My sister and I would stay with her for a week or two in the summer and occasionally some extended time over a winter break from school. Staying with my grandmother kind of felt like going back in time, and connection with the outside world was essentially nonexistent.
Sometimes, this isolation felt overwhelming. While we loved our grandmother, we longed for things to do. My sister and I were generally pretty creative children who didn’t rely solely on television, video games, or the internet to pass the time. However, the thought of having no access to those things felt very lonely. We hoped that our cousins would come to visit so we had people to play with outside. My sister and I would wait for the sound of a car coming down the lane.
Boredom becomes creativity.
However, in my boredom and loneliness, I developed a love for nature that I hold to this day. Sometimes, I would spend hours outside playing in the woods, fields, hills, creek, or coal dirt on the property. My grandmother never extensively programmed our time with her. She would have some special things lined up for us, but generally, she let us play while she tended after the house or prepared a meal.
The environment she fostered for us instilled a great level of creativity in me. Verna taught us how to bake banana cookies, harvest walnuts from the yard, pick meadow tea from the creek bed, and much more. Now as an adult, living in the midst of this pandemic, I find myself replicating much of the creative spirit I felt as a child visiting my grandmother. I’m baking bread, digging holes in my yard to landscape, and picking flowers with my son.
3 – Perseverance
My grandmother is one of the most resilient people I know. Not only was she born during the Great Depression, but she endured a great deal of hardship throughout her life. When she was a teenager, Verna’s father ran away with another woman, leaving her to help raise her younger brothers. Several years later, she took the nearly unheard of step of divorcing an abusive husband and moved back in with her mother to raise her firstborn child.
Years later, she married my grandfather and gave birth to three more children. Shortly after the birth of their third child, my grandfather became ill with an aggressive form of cancer, which took his life at a young age. Verna was left raising four children with only the help of her mother-in-law. Working tirelessly in a dying industry in the heart of Pennsylvania coal country, she eventually received her GED diploma and an associate’s degree, five decades after she had to drop out of school.
Faith in times of struggle.
In the midst of all this, Verna has remained steadfast in her faith. She pursued a faith that was spirit-filled, believing that God was very much present in her life. To this day, she continues to diligently attend the Lutheran parish up the road from her house, and she espouses a very vibrant personal faith.
My grandmother has exemplified the words of Paul to Timothy. “So, my child, draw your strength from the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Take the things you heard me say in front of many other witnesses and pass them on to faithful people who are also capable of teaching others” (2 Tim. 2:1–2, CEB).
This is a challenge for me, as I know I need to keep putting my faith in front of me. My grandmother has taught me—with both spoken word and humble action—how to persevere with faith in the midst of great challenges.
As I look at the current world in which we live, I think we could all learn a few pandemic lessons from my grandmother, Verna.
Originally published for the Spring 2020 issue of Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation.