I believe my grandmother would face this pandemic as she did everything else – head-on, practically and without complaint. She owned a small store, a “cash market,” with a walk-in refrigerator containing cold beer and sides of beef, beef to be transformed into steaks and roasts, the exact size and cut customers requested.

She sold penny candy, ice cream, vegetables, packaged cupcakes, bread, tongue, and head cheese, which is not cheese, but involves compressed parts of a cow’s head.

My grandmother washed her hands continuously and told me money, which touched so many hands and surfaces, was extremely dirty. After sanitizing her hands at the sink behind the cash register, she held them up like a surgeon entering the operating theater, before proceeding to the grinder, the slicer, or the butcher block.

A door beside the ice cream freezer led to the kitchen of the home where she raised four children. When she cooked meals, she ducked in and out of the store to serve customers, whose arrival was announced by the tingle of bells attached to the store door. There were fewer interruptions in summer, when a visiting grandchild could ring up sales, stack shelves, and sort returned bottles according to color.

We all learned how to count out change the old-fashioned way, and about the difference between wholesale and retail. We saw that quietly managing charge accounts for people preserved their dignity. We learned that helping was as good for us as it was for my grandmother.

During the week, there was a noontime rush from the “box shop.” I assume the box shop was a small fabricator of cardboard boxes, but I never asked. After the rush, I sat on a stool and talked with my grandmother. She told me to always wipe off a can before opening it because there were mice in warehouses.

She told me when business was slow, wipe off all the counters and sweep the floor. Sometimes we ate licorice from the penny candy counter. She was convinced it kept the digestive system healthy. Perhaps there was something in that store that would keep the virus at bay.

My grandmother’s customers often entered the kitchen to meet a new grandchild being bathed in the sink.
There was little separation between work and family, and this is how it is for many now.

It’s hard to imagine the men from the box shop, or the Polish neighbors, lining up 6 feet apart, masked, not taking extra time to share their personal news, or to comment on the state of the world.

I expect the front door would be wide open, airing out the store, the bells silent.

It’s difficult to picture my grandmother wearing a mask. I wouldn’t be able to see her smile when she met someone’s small child, or watch her place her teeth over her bottom lip as she pushed the large butcher knife through the meat. I’m certain the large box of hand-written bills, the file for those who couldn’t pay right away, would be larger. She would be sad that she couldn’t donate food to the church bazaar because the bazaar would be canceled.

Some of my grandmother’s customers would joke about the pandemic and perhaps not believe it was real. Many had survived two wars, a move to a new country before air travel was possible, an earlier pandemic, and a depression.

Some had physical scars, some had limps, and some had modest tattoos.

I would have more time to help my grandmother during this pandemic, and I think she would want me around, despite her age. There would be no sorting of bottles, but I might drive them to the recycling center.

There would be no touching penny candy, no matter how clean the hands, and no customers entering the kitchen. She would feel sorry that I couldn’t play sports, or go to a dance, or have sleep-overs with friends, but she wouldn’t let me to feel sorry for myself.

She would tell me things could be worse, and she would be right.

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