By: Alexandra Kostoulas
We knew something was up when things were starting to get weird at the grocery store.
This line keeps popping into my head or a variant of it. Like some day I am going to be an old grandma telling my grandchildren about this time and they will listen to my storytelling mouths agape, thinking what a strange and distant era their crazy old Yiayia came from. I don’t know why that scenario keeps popping into my head.
My own Yiayia was a survivor of the 1918 flu epidemic. Born in 1911, her parents were Greek immigrants from the rough craggy mountains of the Peloponnese region of Southern Greece, near Kalamata–where the olives come from and Sparta–where the Spartans came from.
Her father an immigrant and young man at the time, was cook in the Garrison Inn in Newburyport Massachusetts, her mother a clam shucker. When you go to Newburyport, they have a historical store but none of the Greek immigrants are written into the history. It’s just smiling white Anglo-Saxon Protestants like the pilgrims. You can buy scrimshaw there (it used to be on real whale bone–but it is now on plastic).
My grandmother and her younger sister worked at the textile and shoe factories before child labor laws were in effect. Except my grandmother was too slow–so she started a business of selling candy bars to the factory workers (probably other children) for a nickel a piece.
She ended up getting off the factory line and expanding her business later. But that is another story.
I take after my grandmother in temperament. I am also too slow and I am also physically quite delicate. Being an adjunct professor at several schools at the same time almost broke me when I was doing it. I had a terrible fall down some stairs in my early 30s and it took me 18 months to recover, and I decided after that to take a break. Somewhere in that time I had started my own business teaching creative writing and formed the Institute. It is like the candy bar business my grandmother started as a child in many ways that I haven’t really understood until now.
Now with two small children I don’t know if I could go back to teaching composition or ESL at a college.
I don’t know if I have it in me. I respect the work though. You never know.
I am trying to build my stamina back up bit by bit. But this whole stay-at-home mom thing was never something I imagined I would be doing. It is so freaking hard. The quarantine just makes it harder in some ways.
I keep wondering when I will fully slip into my life as a writer–now that I finally know how to write. I decided that once my oldest started preschool in the fall would be the time that my career would soar. But we were rejected from the fancy preschool near our house in the neighborhood that my family has lived in for 50 years. All of my fantasies of pushing the stroller there and walking home w a fancy latte in the cupholder in luxe exercise pants and a crisp wool pea coat to sit at the computer and write my novel in the fog until 3pm were dashed. It was a great fantasy though. I don’t have fancy exercise pants btw. I have 8-y-old Target ones. But in my fantasy they were fancy.
After getting rejected, I went to watch the sunset at Ocean Beach in my car and cried–(which I don’t do very easily) Then as I was crying I took a picture of the sunset and posted it to facebook and talked about how disappointed I was.
One of my childhood friends, a mom, who is walking away from a difficult marriage comforted me. She said basically that everything happens for a reason and that I wouldn’t want my kid there anyway if they didn’t want me, and I would see why this is good in the long run.
In fact, many moms comforted me. The moms all knew what it means not to have your kid in preschool. What it means for one’s career.
Two weeks later, the city shut down due to Coronavirus.
All of my mom friends are being expected to work from home and take care of their kids at the same time. All the burden is falling on the moms. Oh yeah, and they are supposed to still pay for their expensive preschools and daycare centers during this epidemic in order to hold their “spots.” What kind of shit is that? I’m the only one who can say it now because I don’t have a spot to hold onto. Fuck that. There I said what everyone is thinking.
Right as the shelter-in-place happened, one of my writing clients, a midwife and amazing poet, had these home-made tinctures and teas she was selling to her clients. I saw her advertising them on instagram. I bought one. It’s a reishi mushroom tincture and anti-viral tea. She left them for me and I went and picked them up. I paid her online because social distancing.
When I took them home, I got a flash in my mind of my grandmother.
The story that was passed down to me is that she survived the 1918 flu epidemic because her poor immigrant parents had these tinctures that her father made. Tinctures full of special herbs. My great-grandfather was a medicine man and a healer, his mother was a doctor–his wife, my great-grandmother, was a midwife. They made these tinctures for “wellness” or I think they called them tonics. My grandmother was a small child at the time–the eldest of 5 sisters.
The story goes that her father gave the tinctures to all the Greek immigrants in Newburyport and the surrounding areas and they all survived the flu epidemic because of the tinctures my great-grandfather made.
The main sadness of his life was that he never got them up North to Maine, to his sister, and she fell ill and died. He died later in an accident at a factory, tragically. My great-grandmother lived to 97 though. And my grandmother to 99.
The first weekend of quarantine, I found out my husband had been exposed to the coronavirus at work. We found this out after I picked up the tincture. I spent the first two weeks of quarantine quietly shitting a brick, drinking the tincture, and the anti-viral tea and making avgolemeno soup and bracing myself in case any of us got sick. So far nobody in my family got it. Luckily we are all ok.
Last week I found out that somebody who works at a whole foods in SF has it. Glad we don’t shop there because the parking lot is too aggressive on a regular day, let alone in COVID times.
As the social fabric breaks down a bit, like the women two and three generations before me, I realize I am falling back on folklore and family. I am falling back on my roots. I am falling back on stories. At the end of the day, stories are what settle me.
And I am still here, spry in the middle of the night, drinking tea at the kitchen table.
Stealing the time to write.