by Susan K. Olson—
I suspect that all of us who are lucky enough to have been sent home to work or rest during COVID-19 have come up with unique coping skills.
As I write this, a lot of folks have picked up some baking and cooking skills. Some of my friends dove into books. Several are sewing masks for themselves and for front line workers in need. Puzzles have become so popular that you can’t even buy them at stores. Yeast flies off the shelves to fuel bread-making projects. Rooms are being painted and cleaned out. Bags of items for charity shops sit in garages, waiting to be donated. Some folks are learning new things—knitting, woodworking, computer skills. There are those who are diving into the issues of the day, who are synthesizing current research and what leaders in their geographic regions have been up to. Others dig deep into volunteerism, feeding the hungry, collecting money for furloughed workers and delivering groceries to the elderly. My creative younger sister stages elaborate theme dinners with her husband and young adult children. Every week she posts pictures on Facebook of the four of them in impromptu Great Gatsby costumes, Wayne’s World-styled togas and Elizabethan dress.
Me? Early in the stay-at-home period, I started watching “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with my 13-year-old. I recognize that any of the aforementioned hobbies could be considered more lofty, more educational, more creative. But we began by binging it, a few episodes every night before bed. Draped together on the faded sofa, we’d click the button again and again. “One more?” my daughter would ask. “One more.”
THE ALLURE OF NOSTALGIA
I guess I grew up on Dick Van Dyke. It was long into reruns by the time I was able to watch it. It was just there, one of the shows that came up in afterschool remote-control searches for reruns to watch while doing homework. After finishing high school, I never gave the show another thought.
I’m not sure how we first stumbled onto it online, but I remember my daughter asking about it and my agreement to watch a show with her. “Classic American TV,” I believe I said, adding that Dick Van Dyke was especially good at physical humor. Perhaps she could bring that up in her online school theatre class the next day, which would make this venture an educational one.
The show, for those too young to remember, tells the tale of a TV comedy writer. Set in the early 60s, it blends storylines about his home life with his wife and child and his work life with two co-writers. Much has changed in the 60 years since the show aired. are plenty of cringe-worthy scenes to digest, but they don’t seem to matter to my daughter, who happily sinks into the world of Rob and Laura Petrie with their twin beds and dinner on the table when Daddy gets home.
Outside our snug apartment, our friends and neighbors wage war against a virus we can only begin to understand. Inside, school books and laptops cover our dining room table. Our newly- washed masks dry on the rack beside the sofa. But there we are watching the Petries’ life unfold, as they worry about who will sit next to whom at the dinner party and whether Sally will ever find a fella.
At first, my daughter thought it might have been nice to live back then, with the cool clothes and the pared-down life. Laura managed to have a balanced meal on the table every night, and their living room was not littered with books and shoes and the flotsam of a chaotic life.
My family life, to be fair, is a little chaotic. Even during work-from-home, learn-from-home, worship-from-home shutdown, we have managed to make it chaotic. One of us is always on an online group call just as the other takes up some noisy project. We never seem to think about dinner until we are both hungry. The laundry grows and the dishes multiply overnight. We do most of our shopping online, and the boxes and bags add to the recycling clutter. I scurry out to the grocery store as seldom as possible. Sometimes meals are a little bit, well, creative.
I’ve always felt a little bit of shame about the chaotic home I lead. I grew up in a house with a mom who was an amazing cook, a legendary baker and a talented seamstress. She brought in treats for class parties and bake sales, and half of the church waited eagerly for her chocolate cake to make it to potlucks. She created a home of calm for our family. It was clearly, really hard work. But she did it. And even when she returned to paid work and I’d come home, at times, to an empty house, it was a calm house, a homey house. There was always a plan for supper.
I guess I sort of thought that the skills of homemaking would be bequeathed to me once the birth certificate was signed. I thought I’d know how to make things so nice, so smooth, so serene. I thought I’d make casseroles and cupcakes and wash clothes when they got dirty instead of when we were out of presentable things to wear. Those things don’t come naturally to me. I suspect they never will. And when I look at the tidiness of the Petries, it’s a life I view with a mixture of nostalgia and regret. Why does the past always look so pretty?
LIFE AS IT IS
My small congregation struggles with this, too. It’s a new call for me. They were once the center of this quaint New England town—geographically, spiritually and socially. But things have changed, and while they’ve jumped into that change with two feet, I still hear reminiscences twinged with sadness—the stories about the vacation Bible schools and big church choirs. There’s a repeated story about some movies made one halcyonic spring day when a farmer brought some sheep to show the Sunday school children. Nobody can find these movies, but many remember them fondly.
We were into the second season of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” before my daughter asked me where the black people were. A few episodes later she asked me whether Sally even wanted to be married. Thumbing through photographs of church history, we see women feeding and men leading, even if the children were visiting with the sheep.
I may envy Laura Petrie’s cute outfits and pristine home, but I wouldn’t trade them for my diverse neighborhood and all the opportunities my young daughter has—whether or not she gets married. I wish I had a whole flock of Sunday school kids to visit sheep, but I wouldn’t trade their numbers with this generous, energetic congregation that engages in ministry in today. Which of our members, I wonder, might not have felt welcome at the church that once was?
I wonder which photos and videos of my family’s life will outlive me? Will it be the crazy snapshots we take on the fly with the unconcealed mess and bedheads, or the beautifully composed pictures in portrait mode, where the background fades to a blur of colors, hiding all the mess? Those pictures are the prettiest, but they aren’t the truest. Life together, all life together, is messy, uproarious, crowded and wild. It’s jelly donuts on Easter dresses and craft projects gone wrong. It’s burned dinners and missing candles, laughing so hard you cry and running out of salt. Life together is hard and beautiful and not always pretty.
The Rev. Susan K. Olson is a bi-vocational teaching elder (pastor) in the Presbyterian Church, USA. She is Associate Director of Student Accessibility Services at Yale University and Settled Pastor at First Congregational Church of Lyme in Lyme, Connecticut. She lives in New Haven with her Dick Van Dyke Show-loving 13-year-old daughter.
This article is from the September 2020 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.