When I was a kid, an old man named Joe Shevick lived next door. He had to be in his nineties, wrinkled and bent over, but he lived alone and on his own terms.
My Dad used to cut Joe’s grass. Afterward, Joe and Dad would sit on ancient Adirondack chairs in the yard and survey the freshly-cut lawn. Sometimes I would go over too, because Joe always gave us Cokes from glass bottles with metal caps that you had to pry off with a bottle opener.
I don’t know where Joe bought those Cokes. This was the eighties, and by then cans and plastic bottles dominated the grocery store shelves.
For a kid it was a thrill and a novelty to drink from a glass bottle.
Yesterday I thought of old Joe Shevick for the first time in at least twenty-five years.
It was when I picked up a sliver of bar soap. It was hardly worth saving, and I started to pitch it in the trash and unwrap a new bar.
Joe used to save all his slivers of soap, and he bound them together with rubber bands to mold them into a new bar of soap.
As a kid, I just thought he was an eccentric old man. But he wasn’t.
Capital “H” History—the kind we read about in books—is a poor teacher. We consume stories of World War II like they are adventure novels, with Captain American as the big winner. We study the Holocaust, never believing something like that could happen again. We say that such-and-such will cause “another Civil War” but we don’t mean we’re going to start bayoneting each other. We entertain ourselves with movies and novels about pandemics, wrapped in the protective cocoon of modern medicine.
But the Great Depression wasn’t capital “H” History for Joe Shevick. It was part of his personal history, and personal history is a great teacher. He learned not to waste anything.
Not even soap slivers.
He learned that the world could turn on a dime, that no one is as safe or as in control as modernity would have us believe.
But I’d like to think that not every lesson Joe learned in the Great Depression was about fear or scarcity. I like to imagine that he and others uncovered an unexpected resilience in the face of adversity. He used his wits, his grit, and creativity to make his way through.
I think he learned that he would have enough if he didn’t waste, that he could get by on less than he thought, that he could re-learn the skills of his ancestors if necessary to feed and clothe himself.
That he could take care of himself. That we could take care of each other.
And that sort of knowledge is a hard-won gift.
Covid-19 is part of our personal history now. It will leave its mark on us, in ways we don’t yet understand.
It makes me wonder what we’ll learn from it.
There are things we will not take for granted again. There are things we will lose and won’t get back again.
The world has a way of smacking us around every so often, reminding us that we’re not in charge, even if we have iPhones, and Amazon Free Delivery, and antibiotics.
And we have a way of standing back up.
We’ve done it before. We’ll do it now.
If we’re lucky, we’ll gain some hard-won wisdom, along with a few eccentricities of our own.
And fifty years from, some neighborhood kid cutting my grass will wonder why I have eighty rolls of toilet paper and a turn-of-the-century ventilator squirreled away in my basement.