Global pandemics are nothing new. From prehistoric times to today, man has faced devastating diseases that have changed the course of history or, worse, ended civilizations altogether. What is novel, however, as local resident and historian Sarah Rooker discovered recently, is the telltale stories that accompany them. “Hanover High School rising senior Lauren Pidgeon and I had been researching the 1918 influenza epidemic in Norwich and realized there was very little information,” said Rooker, director of the Norwich Historical Society (NHS). “All we really had were newspaper clippings. Diaries and letters from the time casually mentioned it, but there weren’t enough to really gain insights into the community’s experiences.”
So, Rooker put together an online reflection form with some basic questions and the opportunity to upload images or other materials about Covid-19. The response was remarkable and now are reflected in a digital Community Diary. “Each time we reached out to the community, we received reflections,” said Rooker.
When the coronavirus began last March, one local resident who wished to remain anonymous, for example, said there were “all kinds of strangers walking in my neighborhood.” “We usually see zero to two people when out walking but when the lockdown came, the streets were almost crowded,” said the individual.
For Claudia Marieb, the lifestyle transition warranted by the pandemic was “easy,” she noted. “I was enjoying hanging out in my house instead of working. “I went on long walks and practiced exquisite gentleness and self-care. But then I volunteered for two assignments in the Vermont Department of Health where I was employed and, suddenly, I became super busy.”
Early on in the pandemic, Marieb heard a concept that she liked: We’re all in the same storm, but not in the same boat. She said she’s been in several different boats since Covid-19 started and expects to be in more before it’s over.
“Boat #1 has been the calm of working from home,” said Marieb. “Boat #2 has been Covid-19 testing; Boat #3 is kindness to neighbors; Boat #4 COVIS-19 follow-up calls; Boat #5. Public popup testing; Boat #6 fearing I’ve exposed my parents to Covid-19; Boat #7 pretending there is no Covid-19; Boat #8, the spa opens again; and Boat #9, contrasts from a massage to Covid-19 in prison.”
Amidst the pandemic, the Norwich anonymous person has noticed “strange things missing from the grocery store” such as graham crackers, flour, tofu, and cleaning supplies. “Where did all the organic flour go and when will it ever come back?” the individual thought at the time.
About two weeks into the pandemic, local resident and Left Bank Books former owner Nancy Cressman began making watercolor thumbnail paintings. She is still at it some 150 days later.
“I wanted to keep a visual record of Covid-19 memories,” said Cressman. “That included changes in household life, family moments and spring’s unfolding. The practice of making these paintings has made looking back through the Covid-19 months an easy way to remember what happened during this time. By capturing the most salient, prominent memory of each day, I have a pretty comprehensive record of my and my family’s experience.”
The month of March, for example, reflects new daily pastimes including a crossword puzzle, a Vermont state puzzle, and a card game. April 6 shows the records she and her family listened to nightly. May 2 indicates the creation of a virtual music experience, and June 12 displays the town parade for the Hanover High School graduating class of 2020. Finally, July 19 signifies the Cressman family’s yearly cleaning out of cobwebs in the cellar on a hot day, and August 6-8 is a three-panel spread of a view from a bike ride the Cressman family took in Danville, VT on the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
This spring, Rooker also worked with the 4th graders at the Marion Cross Elementary School to put together a virtual time capsule after the students were given question prompts and asked to share photographs and reflections about how they were negotiating learning from home. “The children were quite motivated, knowing that their writing would be archived for the future,” said Rooker.
Marion Cross student Gideon related, for instance, that his iPad has been “very important” during the pandemic. “I use it to communicate with my friends and for online learning,” he said. “I can use it to play Magic the Gathering with my friends.”
Dorian liked using Zoom and Google Classroom to hang out with his friends to learn “in this new strange way.” “I think Google Classroom is harder than learning in real life, but I like that I get to do my work without a timer,” he said.
The 4th graders were also keenly aware of the precautions they needed to use to deal with Covid-19 as well. “My mom and dad wore these (masks) when we went out so you wouldn’t breathe in the germs, and it also protected you from getting sick,” said Ryan.
Passing the time while at home during the pandemic found most 4th graders outside, creating important projects while sheltering-in-place.
Zander and his brother and father built a tree platform; Collin with his four friends started a crayfish business; Olivia invented a game called rocketship; and Sara made a rock garden passageway with her neighbors. Lila made bracelets for her friends, and Lidia, Grayson and Aydan became deeply involved in book reading.
But gathering these kinds of autobiographical materials wasn’t all Rooker and Pidgeon undertook. They also worked with a group of volunteers in Norwich to gather photographs of signs, notices from the listserv, and information from the local schools about the pandemic. They asked local resident Demo Sofronas to document curbside pickup at Dan & Whit’s and King Arthur Flour. “We’ve been saving many of his blog posts and photographs when they directly connect to Covid-19,” said Rooker. “This has all been gathered via Google Drive. This summer, NHS intern Elizabeth Rooker, a student at Mount Allison University has been downloading and printing the materials so they will be physically in the archive.”
So, what have community members gleaned so far from the pandemic? “I believe it has shown us many clear lessons about kindness, taking better care of our planet, supporting local community and, finally, eradicating racism,” said Norwich resident Amy Lems. “I hope we are all paying attention.”
Once resident expressed appreciation for living in an area where most people seem to respect the request to wear masks and physical distancing. “I’m also extremely grateful to people like Dan Fraser who has made those of us at high risk feel safer by offering delivery and curbside pick-up,” said this Norwich resident. “Our local stores like the Upper Valley Food Co-op and the Hanover Co-op have made it easier on all of us.”
Other local residents also indicated a deeper appreciation for the importance of friends and family. “I think we need to be respectful of others and not to be resentful of what restrictions are placed on us,” said one blogger. “We need to find joy in acceptance and satisfaction in everyday activities as we are living through this unprecedented situation.”
And, for Rooker, the Norwich community has revealed itself as being resilient. “There are circles of neighbors and friends watching out for each other,” she said. “In some ways, the restriction of staying at home opened up new creativity among the kids. And, as always, the beauty of this place has walking trails and vistas for a little escape and good soil for victory gardens.