Want to know how to quarantine? Take lessons from my ninety-one-year-old mom.
“Don’t worry,” she told me through the glass of her screen door. “I know how to do this. When I was a child, the health department posted a quarantine sign on our front door.”
So I’ve been dropping groceries on her front porch. And she’s been leaving them there in the cold for four hours to kill my germs and the germs of everyone at the store.
“Guess what I’m doing,” she said when I called the other day.
I never would have guessed. She was ironing a letter she had written. She wanted to sanitize it before she sent it.
“That’s what my mom always did when we were quarantined,” she explained.
In those pre-antibiotic days, my grandma knew all the tricks. If her family had been exposed to the measles or whooping cough or mumps, or, even worse, scarlet fever, she kept them home from church and school for three weeks. When people were sick, she boiled their dishes after they ate. She didn’t worry about running out of tissues. Instead, she used old sheets to make hankies and washed and ironed them between uses. And when she took her babies out in public she had at the ready a clean diaper to drop over their faces if someone coughed.
My grandma had reason to be careful. She had, after all, lived through the 1918 Flu Pandemic that infected perhaps a third of the world’s population. She had seen the graves of six children—all from one family—who had died in a diphtheria epidemic. And when her cousin’s three-year-old daughter died from scarlet fever complications, she couldn’t go to the service in the graveyard. These stories from my grandma became part of my mom’s diligence against germs.
“How did you know who was in quarantine?” I asked my mom.
And her answer was instant.
“Rubbernecking,” she said. “We all had party lines. So if we heard someone had scarlet fever, we called people on other party lines. And the word just spread.”
As the coronavirus swept toward Ohio, I expected to explain quarantining to my mom. Instead, I got myself an education.