It was a balmy 63 degrees and sunny Wednesday afternoon at the RiverWalk at Head of Falls in Waterville.

Four teens were playing frisbee, a couple walked a dog across the Two Cent Bridge and on the expansive grassy field by the Kennebec River, Whitney Neher, 31, her son, Randel Phillips, 9, and her fiancé, Emmanuel Blyther, 38, were playing baseball.

Whitney Neher, her son, Randel Phillips, 9, and her fiancé, Emmanuel Blyther take a break from playing ball Wednesday afternoon at the RiverWalk at Head of Falls in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Amy Calder

It was such a perfect day, you’d never imagine a deadly virus had the world in its grip.

Or that this sweet, small family was struggling day to day to make ends meet.

Both Neher and Blyther lost their jobs temporarily — she, when the coronavirus pandemic struck, and he, when the restaurant he works at closed for renovations earlier this year.

“I work at Mount Merici Academy,” Neher, 31, said. “I’m a day care teacher, a substitute teacher and I work in the after care school.”

She does not get unemployment benefits, but the school is trying to work something out to help her until it reopens, she said.

“It’s rough for all of us, but our boss reaches out every day.”

Blyther works as a grill cook and sandwich maker at Wendy’s restaurant on Main Street, but has been out of work since the eatery closed for remodeling this winter, just before the pandemic hit, and he does not get unemployment benefits. He is anxious to get back to the restaurant.

“I wish I were working,” he said. “They’re saying it’ll be a couple more weeks and they should be opening.”

Phillips, a third grader, lives with his father in Portland during the week and attends school there. He usually spends weekends and holidays with his mother in Waterville, but he has been with her since mid-March when his school closed. He is doing his school work remotely.

“He does online classes a couple of hours a day — math, science, writing, journal entries,” Neher said.

Phillips said he likes taking classes online, but his mother says it can be challenging sometimes.

“We break up the two hours during the day because he has a short attention span,” Neher said. “His teacher messages every day. She texts every day. We can message her any time.”

Neher usually works in Mount Merici’s summer day care program as well, and her son comes with her, but she doesn’t know if the program will operate this summer. With all the uncertainty in their world, it’s a relief to have a place like the RiverWalk to go to where they can exercise in the fresh air.

“We try to get out here at least a couple days a week, depending on the weather,” Neher said. “I like it. I think it’s pretty. We live on Front Street. We don’t have a yard, so this is very convenient. It gets Randel out of the house because he gets bored, and being the only kid, it’s tough.”

Neher had stomach surgery in February, before the pandemic shut everything down. She went on medical leave from Mount Merici, but after a while, she wanted to get back to work.

“I was almost going stir crazy, so I got cleared from the doctor to go back. My boss said, ‘If you want, I can put you on part time.'”

So, she went back to work part time, but two weeks later, the school closed because of the pandemic and she found herself unemployed again.

Neher said she understands Gov. Janet Mills’ order to stay at home and thinks it is prudent.

“She’s trying to keep everybody safe.”

Neher has to be careful as she is not fully healed from her surgery, so she practices social distancing and wears a mask when she is in a situation where people are closer to her than usual. The pandemic, she said, has changed everything.

“It’s stressful — overwhelming,” she said.

Despite being cooped up at home much of the time and living on a shoestring budget, the trio seems happy.

“We’re just trying to take it a day at a time,” Neher said. “That’s all you can do. You’ve got to stay positive.”

She and Blyther don’t drive and do not have a vehicle, so they walk where they need to go. She saw a job posting for a part-time cashier at Damon’s just down the street from their home and jumped at the chance to apply. It would be an easy commute of about a minute, since she lives so close.

“Fingers crossed,” she said.

As for when she and Blyther will get married, only time and circumstance will tell. It will be a small affair, with just friends and family.

“We were hoping to do it on Emmanuel’s birthday, July 7, but we don’t know, with everything going on,” she said.

For this family, it’s one day at a time.

 

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 32 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

 


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