I am truly my grandmother’s child. Grandma shared with me. As was common for women of her generation, she had many things memorized – the Bible, poetry. I adore the Victorian poets. This must in large part be attributable to her. Grandma introduced me to Tennyson. So, while others in high school found Idylls of the King tough going, I did not. One of her favorites and one that appealed to the dramatic, romantic teenager was “The Lady of Shalott”. For those of you unfamiliar, the story is that the Lady is cursed, confined to her room and sees the world on the river pass by. She cannot venture out but sees the world reflected in a mirror. It works for her until one day she sees Sir Lancelot drifting by on his way to Camelot. The mirror and distance will no longer suffice. She breaks out, gets in a boat, unleashes the curse, floats down to Camelot and dies. Ah, melodrama, the romance. What stayed with me through the years was the Lady of Shalott not being part of the world but viewing it through a mirror, removed.
I have often thought of the Lady of Shalott in recent years as my world narrowed. I used to sit in my home “office” and look out the window into the backyard garden and woods. Indeed, I was unable to venture into the yard without assistance as there were uneven, unrailed steps. I watched the world go by. I missed the smell of the air and the earth. I missed the feel of the sun on my body. I watched. I wanted to break free but knew I had to be safe. It’s hard to express how confining it felt. I could still see but wasn’t an actual part of the outside world. Almost no one understands when I reference the Lady of Shalott.
Another Grandma legacy – “for now we see through a glass, darkly…” It was one of her favorites and always appealed to me. The adult me can connect it to the Lady of Shalott. Hmmn. As I age and become more infirm, mortality looms. The phrase takes on a different aura. It resonates. It’s one of the verses that repeat as I stare out the window/mirror. What is seen? What is known?
It came to me recently reflecting on the pandemic and its conditions, that I have become what people used to term a “shut-in”. I do not leave the house. We moved into a new home March 10 which is the last time I had human touch contact with someone who wasn’t my husband. One of the movers literally carried me into the house as I really don’t walk well. The cable guy came by on March 13. We were distant as I couldn’t move. I can quantify my contacts. I closed on March 5 so there was the Uber drivers, the receptionist, the realtor, the attorney. Before that, the realtor came to tea in December. I truly do not have much physical contact. It’s more extreme here than it was before I moved but not by much. I used to drive and from time to time struggled into the library or the grocery. How I hate reading and writing those words.
I was extremely introverted as a child to the point that people thought my parents only had a son. I am used to being quiet and unseen. I overcame. I took a Myers-Briggs test once and I am now an extrovert. The examiner knew I had been extremely shy because of my results. She said I overcompensate. I enjoy people. I enjoy their stories. I watch and listen. My parents used to call me Madame DeFarge.
Another factor in my Lady of Shalott equation: I have been a pioneer. I was one of the first women at an all male college. I became used to being an “only” and somewhat isolated. Because of this careerwise, I have been successfully one of the few women in different capacities and industries. I worked for years as one of the only women in management at a company. I learned how to balance my world so that outside of work, I could have females in my life. I became a woman in an IT department. Not only that but I would venture to say I am probably one of the least IT people you could meet. You are reading me. I am so not linear. I bounce. So, again, I know how to compensate. I used to take creative classes – at craft stores, the library. I played with flowers, painting, mixed media. It all balanced the IT numbness. I know how to do this. I know how to compensate. I may be a Lady of Shalott but I have a big mirror. Even before I became confined, my friends were spread over a wide area. The Internet age has collapsed and opened the world.
So, back to Grandma and the pandemic. Grandma’s story is a romantic one. She fell in love with a man old enough to be her father. Indeed, his daughter was older than Grandma. The family objected and put her and her sister, Beryl on a ship to the States (Grandma was Jamaican)
My grandfather was a ship’s pilot and he snatched her off the ship. They eloped and married. Beryl went on to the States, alone. She was just a teenager.
So, what does this have to do with the pandemic? Beryl died in the Spanish flu pandemic. My grandmother felt guilty for Beryl’s death for the rest of her life. I was raised on the story. Beryl’s death was blamed on her not understanding the change in the weather. She must have not dressed correctly. Remember, this was over 100 years ago. Our family rule was once you put on your winter coat, it was on. If it was 72F in December, you kept the coat on. An unseasonably cold day in May? No coat. Beryl’s story became our story. We knew what a pandemic could wreak on a family. Beryl lives forever frozen in time and disease.
What Beryl’s story also reinforced was even girls could do things and have courage. Grandma went against her family and eloped. Beryl went on alone to a strange land. My mother returned to the States, alone. My grandmother let her go. Courage, faith, strength. I attend all male school and work with men. I fight my condition.
The Covid 19 pandemic brings Beryl back and is very real. Pandemics kill and destroy. One wants to keep a distance. On the other hand, having been the Lady of Shalott for so long, I am used to interacting with the world through my mirror. But a mirror doesn’t prevent you from engaging in life. So, I have a foothold up on people dealing with quarantine. One can compensate for being confined. We are blessed to have technology, even the simple telephone, to connect and break out from behind the mirror. The mirror can be porous. And at the end of the day, most will be able to continue on the river of life, journey towards Camelot and still be alive, well and stronger. Maybe a curse is only a curse, if you make it one. The mirror enables us to see and reflect. It’s up to us, like the Lady of Shalott to choose to engage, to live.