I used to laugh at my mother. As soon as she opened a jar of coffee or a bag of sugar, she’d run out and buy more. Actually, she’d usually already have a couple of unopened containers stashed in the closet somewhere. I couldn’t stand it.
“Why do you do that?” I’d hector her. “You’re literally the only person in the house who drinks coffee. One jar of Taster’s Choice is going to last you for months. Why do we need three jars in here?”
She’d flash a weary I’m-trying-to-put-up-with-you-politely gaze. “I just don’t want to run out. Especially when the winter comes.”
Born in the last great pandemic in 1918, she’d survived the Spanish flu but the twin born with her had not. When she was a girl, the Great Depression wiped out her family’s wealth—there’d been two houses, a bell foundry, horses, cars (a luxury then) and a few servants. And then there wasn’t. World War Two came—blackouts, boyfriends going off to war and never coming home, rationing. All the answers to her hoarding tendencies were there, but I dismissed them. “That happened long ago, you need to get over it,” I explained to her from my high throne of twenty-something wisdom. My house would be streamlined, I swore to myself. No stupid unnecessary clutter.
Over the decades, my attitude about Mom’s “hoarding tendencies,” as I called it, never really lessened. She was far from a hoarder, but there was still way more junk on her kitchen shelves than there needed to be. It seemed greedy and sort of pathetic.
Three weeks to flatten the curve, they said. But I knew when they said it. Because I’d known before they said it. I knew we’d already bungled the beginning and now the middle would just drag on and on forever, a roller coaster of half-hearted closings and over-eager reopenings that would stretch on for years. I thought of my mother’s pandemic stories, and all I could hope was that I’d live to see the end of it.
Before things started shutting down in mid-March, I’d already started buying stuff. I began with masks, even managing to score a box of ten anti-viral masks that lasted us for weeks as we popped them in a UV sanitizer or sprayed them down with Lysol and prayed.
We’d recently downsized from a huge house in the country on an acre of land to a five-room apartment without even a patio. Who needed all that space? Our son had left home for college and we were going to travel, maybe retire to the beach in a couple of years. The folks upstairs, who work at Johns Hopkins, started ordering huge shipments from Chewy and Boxed. Oh, God, I thought when I saw that, this is really happening.
I went to the grocery store—there was no meat on the shelves. None. The only package of toilet paper left was a 30-roll carton I was embarrassed to buy, but buy it I did.
As my husband texted me from several states away on a business trip, I rearranged furniture and cupboard supplies, squeezing more and more space out of that little apartment for cartons of beans and pasta, bags of rice, crates of cat food. I turned a den into a home office with a pre-fab bit of countertop from Home Depot, knowing that when my husband finally made it home, he’d need a place to work. The military base he worked at as a contractor had declared condition Charlie and no contractors would be allowed in for months. Meanwhile, air travel started shutting down.
My son, who had moved back in with us, had been scheduled to go on a trip to the UK in late March. It didn’t happen. “Do you think Dad’s gonna be able to fly home?” he asked. “Or will he have to rent a car and drive?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. I contacted a local farm I’d once profiled for the newspaper I used to work for and arranged to have them start delivering meat and eggs to us weekly.
My husband made it home on a very empty plane from Tennessee as the first cases were started to show up there. My son’s job as a teaching assistant at an elementary school went away.
I kept shopping. I couldn’t stop shopping. I still can’t. I have a frequent shopper membership at Boxed now. I have so much food in my cabinets, I’m sure I’ll be overrun with rats and cockroaches and ants.
But I think of my mother, and I order another bag of the Dunkin’ Decaf. For when the winter comes.