Mourning in the Time of the Plague

Mortality has become the stuff of daily discourse in the age of COVID.  Yet the US Postal Service does not know what to do with death. 

My mother, Inge Gould, died on Friday, March 13th.

I have been trying to get her mail forwarded ever since.   The USPS website is quite explicit:   you cannot process such transactions online.   You must bring a death certificate and proof that you are the executor to a post office branch, preferably the home post office branch of the departed.   Unlikely at the moment:   I live in Massachusetts, and Mom lived in Florida.  

I call the USPS helpline, to ask if there is some way to do this remotely.   I am put on hold for over an hour; but eventually I do get through, and the woman at the other end is as nice as can be.   All I need, she says, is a simple form; and she will put in a message for my local mail carrier to deliver one within the next few days, in the course of his normal rounds.   I give her my Boston address, with my Boston zipcode. 

A week passes, and no form materializes.    I do, however, get a call from a post office branch in Tennessee, of all places, telling me that I was mistaken to leave instructions for my mail carrier with them:   I would need instead to call the number of my own home branch (which number, by the way, is published nowhere).   

My mother would say, “These people are SO STUPID.” 

I do eventually go to my home post office branch, to request the form one uses to permanently forward the mail of a deceased person.  The postal clerk slips it to the other side of her plexiglass screen;  I slide it into my bag and leave.    When I get home I find that she has given me the standard change of address form: not to be used for deceased persons.   

My mother would say, “Our schools don’t teach people how to THINK.” 

The next day I try a different post office, where the clerk hands me the same exact form.  I ask instead for the form for forwarding a dead relative’s mail.  The two clerks on duty know nothing about how to forward mail after a death; but they suggest that I drop in at a third post office, where there just might be a supervisor who could possibly know the answer. 

My mother would say, “That idiot, Donald Trump, has starved our entire infrastructure – we shouldn’t be surprised they screw everything up.” 

She would be right. 


That the virus would hit the US was just starting to become clear when my mom began hospice care and slipped into a morphine haze.   I, in Boston, was caught without hand sanitizer; my brother, in LA, couldn’t get toilet paper.     There is a supply of both of these things in my mother’s apartment, in Florida.   

It’s not that my mom had stocked up in anticipation of this particular crisis.   She was not a hoarder; in fact, she was a great believer in fairness, in not taking more of anything than one’s reasonable share.    My mother had hand sanitizer and toilet paper on hand because these are things she always kept on hand, in just the right amounts.   The virus would not have caught my mother unprepared.   Little did. 


My mom loved baking but didn’t care for cooking.  I, on the other hand, love to cook.  I often cooked when I visited her in Florida, making extra to stock her freezer.   Post-meal clean-up at my own home includes doing the dishes and leaving them to dry in the drainer, wiping down the counters, and maybe sweeping the crumbs off the floor.   In my mom’s kitchen, however, it also involved hand-drying and putting away everything in the drainer, wiping down the counter and then spraying it with cleanser, and using a different, special cleanser on the stovetop, whether it had been used for meal prep or not.   I did my very best to clean to her standards every time I used her kitchen; but when I was done, she invariably went in after me, to clean up some microscopic schmutz that only her eyes could see.     

Now there are little stains on my bathroom counters.    My mother would say, “It’s disgusting.”   I would not use that word:  little flecks of toothpaste do not fill me with disgust.   But it is dirtier than I’d like – no surprise, since we are now three people living full-time in a 900-sq. ft. apartment that is usually peopled by two, frequent travelers at that.   Back before the plague, our wonderful housecleaner came every other week and cleaned it much more thoroughly than I ever could.   I am still paying her, but she is staying home and safe until we can all do otherwise in good conscience. 

The Wednesday after my mom dies, my husband and younger daughter go off for a (socially-distanced) hike on the beach.   My mother worried any time someone she loved got into a vehicle of any kind; she would have fretted until she knew they’d arrived at their destination without incident, and then again until they returned home unharmed.   

“Drive safely,” I call after them as they leave.   While they are gone I scrub the house from top to bottom. 

A week later I say to my husband and daughter, “this place needs a good cleaning.” 

“It’s not dirty,” replies my husband.  “Where’s the dirt?  Show me some dirt.  I don’t see it.” 

But I see it.   And so I scrub the apartment, top to bottom, every Wednesday night.   


In mid-March the bodies start to pile up in Italy.  The Times runs stories about grief-stricken family members who cannot properly bury their loved ones, who cannot gather with families for funerals.  I think, “how terribly sad.” 

Oh.   Right. 

Two days after my mother’s death I organize a Zoom shivah, with the help of our rabbi, so that I can mourn with my brother from opposite sides of the country in the only way possible at the moment.   Now, of course, Zoom shivahs are the expected thing; less so on March 15th, when we had ours.   

It is surprisingly beautiful.    We are able to pull together a whole community of people who loved my mom, from all across the country (and beyond), many of whom would not have been able to travel even in the best of circumstances.  I see their faces and hear their stories about my mother and my heart is full beyond words. 

My mom would have loved it.  She would have delighted in triumphing over the logistical challenges of the quarantine: she was a master planner.    She would have loved seeing the faces of everyone she treasured and hearing their warm and wonderful memories of her.   And she would have been so pleased that none of them had driven to get there, so she didn’t have to worry about their safety on the trip home.   


In the last six months of her life, after she was diagnosed with lung cancer, my mother announced many lasts.   She would announce, almost with relish, that she’d gone to her last opera, her last play, her last museum visit; that she’d baked for the last time, finished knitting her last project. 

She kept her word about the opera, the plays and the museums:  she was too self-conscious about her worsening cough to enjoy those experiences.  But she announced her final baking project at least four times; a week after such a pronouncement she’d tell me that she’d baked both a batch brownies and her signature Mandelbrodt for my upcoming monthly visit (as if, in the course of three days, I was likely to put away two full batches of cookies).   Knitting and crocheting, too, were things she did right up until the end.   Her last major project was a baby blanket for my cousin Ellen’s first grandchild; my Aunt Laraine found her the pattern and the materials.  She had lost much of her vision by then, so knitting anything complex was a challenge.   That blanket, she announced, was her last project, for sure.  But Mom never could sit entirely still.   Within a week of shipping off the blanket she started crocheting scraps of leftover yarn into potholders, a project small and lightweight enough that it didn’t irritate her increasingly sore shoulders.  She gave the potholders to her caregivers.   She was working on one when I saw her last, two weeks before her death.   The stitches were even and perfect. 

My daughters and I have inherited my mother’s inability to sit still:  we are knitting our way through the quarantine.  Each of us has finished at least one sweater and started another.   We knit while we talk, knit while we watch movies, knit while we listen to music or just knit in silence.   We knit with my mother’s hands. 


They are a blessing for me, for my husband, and for each other, our daughters.  It is not an easy moment for either of them.  My older daughter started a new job, in a new field, a scant month before the lockdown began, and she is trying to figure out how to get trained and acculturated while working from home.   My younger daughter is ending her senior year of college in a manner she could scarcely have imagined:  she is missing her senior clarinet recital, her friends, and all the rituals of graduation. 

My older daughter and her boyfriend built a miniature golf course in their living room out of cardboard, and they are busy designing a board game.  She meets with her virtual book club every Monday night; she has started drawing again, exercising a gift long dormant.  My younger daughter has dived into her remote classes with enthusiasm.  She has figured out a way to keep writing and working with her sketch comedy troupe; she’s joined a virtual orchestra; she is studying botany and rhapsodizes about the katsura trees in the Boston Public Garden.   

My mother would say – did say -- “they are SO GREAT.”   

She was right. 


My mother would worry, as we do, about all the small businesses whose existence is threatened by the shutdown.  Steve and I try to find ways to support them that are epidemiologically responsible.   We buy gift certificates we will never use.  We occasionally get take-out with curbside pickup. 

There is a wonderful bakery on the corner that has remained open, allowing only one or two people to enter at a time.  We go in one day, and I am dismayed to see that the salesperson is not wearing a mask, and that she is bagging the pastries with un-gloved hands. 

I spend an hour composing an email to the owner, telling him how much I love his business and how I so much want both the bakery and its employees to survive and thrive, neighborhood treasure that it is.  I express dismay at the lack of mask and gloves and attach the health department guidelines with which I would be ever so delighted if they would comply, thank you very much. 

It is an Inge move if ever there was one. 


I wish I could tell my mom how we made her cherry nutcake for Passover, and how it was good, but not as good as hers.  I wish I could tell her about how the girls are supporting each other; about Family Band Camp; about how Julia and I made raspberry/chocolate swirl marshmallows (way too much work for the outcome – still just marshmallows – but a good project, nonetheless).  

 

I wish I could tell her about how we have grown attached to looking out our apartment window at the Millenium Tower, a building which has definite moods:  brooding when the sky is gray, exultant on a sunny day.   I wish I could send her this picture, with the tower reflecting the sky. 

She would want to paint it. 

If I could call my mother now, she would tell me about all of the friends and relatives with whom she would surely be talking daily during their mutual quarantine:  how they are managing, their health problems, their family challenges.  I am calling some of those same friends myself these days.   I love hearing their voices.  I miss hearing hers.   

If I could call my mom she would complain about the food from the dining room:  it would be too spicy, or too salty, or too bland.    She would tell me about the lives and problems of her caregivers, or of the people who work in her building; she would worry about their health and safety in the pandemic, and about how the economic crisis was affecting their families.   

She would call the governor of Florida a moron. 

She would say, “we’ve gotten through worse; and we will get through this, too.” 

She would be right.

28 comments

  • Aunt Clara
    Aunt Clara Ellen’s home
    Each day I imagine a conversation with your mom and you have caught her in this time so perfectly. I appreciate and love what you have given me today.

    Each day I imagine a conversation with your mom and you have caught her in this time so perfectly. I appreciate and love what you have given me today.

  • Mirla Morrison
    Mirla Morrison Ossining, NY
    Oh Laurie, you have painted Inge so beautifully (and with her feistiness intact). We are so fortunate to have had her in our lives! Your memories are precious, thank you for sharing them with us. Sending love.

    Oh Laurie, you have painted Inge so beautifully (and with her feistiness intact). We are so fortunate to have had her in our lives! Your memories are precious, thank you for sharing them with us. Sending love.

  • Carolyn Gombosi
    Carolyn Gombosi Newton
    Thanks for writing this... I wish I had known your mom.The photo is marvelous. And, it is good to hear some news about the nuclear family...Take care, Carolyn

    Thanks for writing this... I wish I had known your mom.The photo is marvelous. And, it is good to hear some news about the nuclear family...Take care, Carolyn

  • Howie
    Howie LA
    Perfect.

    Perfect.

  • Stephen Ansolabehere
    Stephen Ansolabehere the kitchen
    This makes me cry.

    This makes me cry.

  • Ellen K
    Ellen K Tampa Bunker
    Beautifully written; right on target, as always XO

    Beautifully written; right on target, as always XO

  • Nance
    Nance Framingham, MA
    Thank you Laurie! That was beautiful. She was an amazing lady and is greatly missed. Stay safe, Be well and stay strong!

    Thank you Laurie!
    That was beautiful.
    She was an amazing lady and is greatly missed.
    Stay safe, Be well and stay strong!

  • Rick Travers
    Rick Travers Westwood, Ma
    My dear Laurie and family, I had the pleasure of your mother and dad's company at many dinners that I was invited to in your home over the years. I always felt so special to be a part of their company and enjoyed the many stories and belly laughs at your table with you,'Mr. Wonderful' and the girls. I'm so lucky to have known your mom coming to all the concerts and how she truly loved music and the arts; I do wish I could have another scotch with your dad and talk about how much he loved you guys. Beautiful picture of mom. Thinking of you. ooxx RT

    My dear Laurie and family,
    I had the pleasure of your mother and dad's company at many dinners that I was invited to in your home over the years. I always felt so special to be a part of their company and enjoyed the many stories and belly laughs at your table with you,'Mr. Wonderful' and the girls. I'm so lucky to have known your mom coming to all the concerts and how she truly loved music and the arts; I do wish I could have another scotch with your dad and talk about how much he loved you guys. Beautiful picture of mom. Thinking of you. ooxx RT

  • Allison
    Allison Newton
    Such a beautiful portrait of you, your Mom, and this time. Sending you love. Allison

    Such a beautiful portrait of you, your Mom, and this time. Sending you love. Allison

  • Rise Shepsle
    Rise Shepsle Wellesley
    You have demonstrated how talented you are and why your mom was so proud of you. It’s a beautiful portrait. Thank you.

    You have demonstrated how talented you are and why your mom was so proud of you. It’s a beautiful portrait. Thank you.

  • Debbie
    Debbie Forman
    What a wonderful tribute to Aunt Inge. I always loved seeing her and your dad - funny, loving, smart and genuinely kind human beings. She was always wonderful and I loved her wit - I think both you and Howard have that (lucky you). I haven't seen her in a long time but would get emails about you and Howard which were lovely to receive. I would see her name in my inbox and smile, knowing she needed to kvel about her children. She is missed but never forgotten. Much love

    What a wonderful tribute to Aunt Inge. I always loved seeing her and your dad - funny, loving, smart and genuinely kind human beings. She was always wonderful and I loved her wit - I think both you and Howard have that (lucky you). I haven't seen her in a long time but would get emails about you and Howard which were lovely to receive. I would see her name in my inbox and smile, knowing she needed to kvel about her children. She is missed but never forgotten. Much love

  • Claire Smith
    Claire Smith South Tower. #926
    My friendship with your smart and caring mother was a highlight of my older age. We bitched about the food together and she urged me to run for the resident council but I was too chicken. I lacked her resolve and determination. I miss her every day. Thank you for including the in your beautiful tribute

    My friendship with your smart and caring mother was a highlight of my older age. We bitched about the food together and she urged me to run for the resident council but I was too chicken. I lacked her resolve and determination. I miss her every day. Thank you for including the in your beautiful tribute

  • Tina Kinard
    Tina Kinard Lexington, MA
    Thank you for sharing this with us, Laurie. It is so beautifully written. I particularly appreciate the self-care you are practicing by "productively" grieving in these wonderful ways: writing, baking, connecting to you mom in your reactions, and calling her friends. It is no small wonder that you have so many people in your life who knew your parents and want to talk to you about them. That's gold right there; it's something I wish I had. Your mother must have been quite something to have raised such an extraordinary woman. Sending love to you xo

    Thank you for sharing this with us, Laurie. It is so beautifully written. I particularly appreciate the self-care you are practicing by "productively" grieving in these wonderful ways: writing, baking, connecting to you mom in your reactions, and calling her friends. It is no small wonder that you have so many people in your life who knew your parents and want to talk to you about them. That's gold right there; it's something I wish I had. Your mother must have been quite something to have raised such an extraordinary woman. Sending love to you xo

  • Gloria
    Gloria Boise, Idaho
    Thank you Laurie, I am crying with joy from your beautiful composition. Absolutely lovely. Drive safely in life, Laurie, drive safely.

    Thank you Laurie,
    I am crying with joy from your beautiful composition. Absolutely lovely. Drive safely in life, Laurie, drive safely.

  • Hilary M
    Hilary M Boston
    So beautiful. The plague made human in your Mom's memory. Keep writing and reaching out.

    So beautiful. The plague made human in your Mom's memory. Keep writing and reaching out.

  • Jonathan Klein
    Jonathan Klein Brookline
    Clearly, you are your mother’s daughter. How wonderful.

    Clearly, you are your mother’s daughter. How wonderful.

  • Mark
    Mark Berks
    Ah, Laurie. Exactly.

    Ah, Laurie.

    Exactly.

  • Bill Bachman
    Bill Bachman Boston
    Thank you for sharing your mother with us. We're richer for it.

    Thank you for sharing your mother with us. We're richer for it.

  • Eileen M
    Eileen M Newtonville, MA
    I love the rich, quotidian observations. That's the good stuff. My wonderful mom sounds a lot like yours and we will miss them forever.

    I love the rich, quotidian observations. That's the good stuff. My wonderful mom sounds a lot like yours and we will miss them forever.

  • Paul
    Paul Minnesota
    All we can do is enjoy the time we have together make memories and share our thoughts. Inga made thing simple. I liked that

    All we can do is enjoy the time we have together make memories and share our thoughts. Inga made thing simple. I liked that

  • Ezra
    Ezra Newton
    Beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing all those thoughts, Laurie!

    Beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing all those thoughts, Laurie!

  • Liz Carver
    Liz Carver Roslindale
    Such a beautiful and beautifully written tribute, Laurie!

    Such a beautiful and beautifully written tribute, Laurie!

  • Alexa Dailey
    Alexa Dailey Boston
    What a lovely tribute - got a real sense of her personality. She definitely passed on some excellent qualities to her daughter. I am sorry about her death, but it is clear she lived a very full and giving life. And I think she must have taught you about cleaning - I have a memory of a video of you scrubbing your freezer!! Take care - would be lovely to see you sometime. Maybe we can arrange a zoom visit with Judy. All my best, alexa

    What a lovely tribute - got a real sense of her personality. She definitely passed on some excellent qualities to her daughter. I am sorry about her death, but it is clear she lived a very full and giving life. And I think she must have taught you about cleaning - I have a memory of a video of you scrubbing your freezer!!

    Take care - would be lovely to see you sometime. Maybe we can arrange a zoom visit with Judy.

    All my best, alexa

  • Karen
    Karen Belmont
    Thank you Laurie for sharing. She was obviously a great mother because she created a great daughter, and on it goes. I’m sorry for your sadness.

    Thank you Laurie for sharing. She was obviously a great mother because she created a great daughter, and on it goes. I’m sorry for your sadness.

  • Marcia Lerner
    Marcia Lerner Brooklyn
    Laurie, I am so sorry to hear about your mom. What a terrible loss, for all of you. For the world as well. I remember your parents so fondly. I am thinking of you.

    Laurie, I am so sorry to hear about your mom. What a terrible loss, for all of you. For the world as well. I remember your parents so fondly. I am thinking of you.

  • Sara Ellison
    Sara Ellison Newton
    I am crying, but I don’t know whether because of the beauty or the loss. Or both.

    I am crying, but I don’t know whether because of the beauty or the loss. Or both.

  • Holly
    Holly Kania
    I feel like I know her from this piece, and I can attest that she was a fantastic mom because she raised an amazing daughter. I love these glimpses into her mind, your life, and the love in your family. It sounds like she wouldn't really want to rest in peace, so I hope there's yarn in heaven and the angels need scarves. I'm so sorry for your grief.

    I feel like I know her from this piece, and I can attest that she was a fantastic mom because she raised an amazing daughter. I love these glimpses into her mind, your life, and the love in your family. It sounds like she wouldn't really want to rest in peace, so I hope there's yarn in heaven and the angels need scarves. I'm so sorry for your grief.

  • Nancy and Kenji
    Nancy and Kenji Redwood City
    Laurie, we are so sorry about your mom. What a lovely and moving tribute to a loving, strong, and funny woman. Blessings to you and the family.

    Laurie, we are so sorry about your mom. What a lovely and moving tribute to a loving, strong, and funny woman. Blessings to you and the family.

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