Pandemic Story: OH, NO! NO! QUARANTINE ME AGAIN ON MY BIRTHDAY? by Mary Mortensen Burman, Laramie

It is spring of 1936. My older brother Charles was sick, and the doctor had just been there. He told my parents, “Your boy is very sick; he has scarlet fever. I will call the Laramie County Health Officer to come and put a quarantine sign on the front door. Nobody can come to visit; no one can leave the house. Now, Axel (my Dad), you probably need to work, so can you stay with a friend? Find out right now, pack a bag, and leave. Call my office for more information.”

Dr. Phelps then turned to my Mother. “Mom,” (he always called her that), the younger kids do NOT need to get this disease. It is Spring; keep them outside as much as possible. Now Big Sister, I am sure you don’t want to miss high school and your part-time job there, so call a friend and see if you can stay there. NOW!!

My other brother and I stood there, too shocked to utter a word. What about us, we wondered.

Meanwhile Dad was quickly packing a bag and calling the U. S. Postal Service about a place to stay.

My sister was checking with a neighboring teen. And Mom was assisting both as much as possible. Jim who was 11, and I (who was going to be six in a few days on April 8) decided the best thing for us was to go outside to the big backyard, climb over the fence, (we never bothered too pen the gate), and sit down in the dirt and think.

“What awful thing was the matter with Charles? What on earth is Scarlet Fever?? Are we going to get sick? Is Charles going to die?” And then we just sat and waited. Before long, a very tall man came to the gate and called to us, “Come here, please, you two. . I need to talk to you both. It is very important.” We slowly walked to the gate and followed him to the front porch. He had a big orange sign that had large letters that said, “QUARANTINED! ABSOLUTELY NO VISITORS! He told us that we could NOT leave the yard or our house, and NO friends could come play with us for . . . SIX WEEKS!” We were speechless and very afraid. But then my brother stepped out of our yard onto the alley behind that man, and I knew he would be arrested. He wasn’t but we were under quarantine.

So our Dad left to stay at the home of another Railway Postal Clerk’s home, and a neighbor came to walk with our big sister Marguerite to their house on the corner.

Now it was going to be Mom, our sick brother, Jim, and me. Mom sat down on the porch and gathered the two of us and said, “Now, Dr. Phelps says Charles is very sick, but he is already getting good care and medicine and should be all right but it will take many days. I will be busy taking care of him and I need you to help by playing in the yard, being quiet when you come in the house, and you do not visit Charles.”

My first thought was, “But, Mom, what about my birthday – I am going to be SIX on April 8?” Her answer was that my birthday would probably be in the backyard with Jim. But there would be cupcakes especially for us.

Six weeks dragged on and on. Jim and I played in the yard with some shovels, sticks, small trucks, and created a whole countryside in the big yard. My memory is of nice sunny days, occasionally trips to the house for a drink and bathroom break, and back to the yard. And the days passed with the April 8th birthday with the promised cupcakes in the backyard. My Dad came by and left grocery sacks of groceries at the driveway. The milkman drove up the alley and opened his milk bottles and poured the milk into clean jugs that Mom had placed on the sidewalk.

Our family doctor, Dr. George Phelps, was totally involved with our family during this entire quarantine period and made several house calls. One day he was coming around 11:00 am. My brother and I wanted to have a “lemonade stand” just for him because, of course, no one else could come by our house, give us a penny, and get a drink. So we told the doctor when he came that there would be lemonade for sale. He said, “Great —-how about a sandwich with it?” I ran and told my mother, so Jim made the lemonade, and I made a sandwich (what kind I don’t remember.). Our stand was an apricot crate on its side covered with one of Mom’s dish towels. When the doctor came out the front door, we greeted him with the lemonade stand. Jim carefully poured him a glass of lemonade. I, acting like a fancy waitress, held the sandwich plate up over my shoulder — but the sandwich dropped to the sidewalk. I calmly picked it up and handed it to Dr. Phelps. He thanked us, gave us twenty-five cents, drank the lemonade, and put the sandwich in the front seat of his car.

(About six years later, Dr. Phelps was at the hospital, ready to remove my tonsils. Just before I went “under”, he said, “Now I can get even with you for that “gravel sandwich!” He had not forgotten that day when I was six.”)

Days passed slowly – all the same – until one day, after the doctor’s visit, Mom said, “Charles is MUCH better. The doctor thinks in a week or so, he may be healthy again!” What beautiful words. Sure enough, that day came.

But . . There was one more step – we had to leave the house for one whole 12-hour day for the house to be fumigated! The Health official came and removed that ugly sign, and we all left to go a friend’s home where Dad had been staying. While we were gone, the Health Department had placed some small pots of a very smelly chemical which burned all day to kill that nasty scarlet fever bug!

At the end of that day, we all came home to our small house, but we were ALL home. How Jim and I greeted our Dad and big sister Marguerite! The quarantine was over and Charles was well! No one else ever became ill from scarlet fever at our house.

Now we forward the calendar 84 years to March 15, 2020 . . . It was not the Laramie County, Wyoming Health Officer with a Quarantine sign, but telephone calls from my daughter, Mary Evelyn, a University of Wyoming nursing professor, here in Laramie; and my son, Bill, the Director of Public Health for Denver — both giving me the same message, ”STAY HOME, MOM!” I replied that I was on my way out the door to go to church, that I was teaching a class, and then I would come home. The response was a definite “STAY HOME RIGHT NOW!”

So . . . I said I would stay home. I called the church and told the fellow who answered the phone that I would not be there for anything at all that day. Gradually, that afternoon I began to piece together news items I had heard the previous week:

Friday, March 13th (bad luck news day) President Trump declared a National Emergency because of reports of the “corona outbreak”, and called for “Testing, testing, testing,” but stated “this will be over by Easter. . . “

University of Wyoming President told University students told to go home for spring break and stay home!

The local School Board soon followed suit at their quickly called special meeting.

Church services were being cancelled, many to “have church” via ZOOM or telephone.

Everyone was urged to stay home unless they were necessary employees. I was to stay in my home except for daily walks around the school, city park, and my home area. My doctor son called me later in the day to discuss with me the seriousness of this outbreak, confirming “that’s because, Mom, you are 89, and you are at risk!”

Fortunately, the previous Thursday I had done my regular monthly grocery shopping at Ridley’s Grocery Senior Day when they offer1 0% off your entire bill with their card. So I was equipped to get along while this quarantine lasted. The President encouraged us by reporting that it would be over by Easter.

Medical professionals, however, were urging Americans to prepare for a much longer period. Later the Vice President said by “Memorial Day” it will be done.

Then the cancellations began to come:

Dentist’s office called to cancel check-up . . .

Foot care at the Senior Center cancelled toenail cutting appointment. . .

Four Tuesdays of listening to interesting speakers at the four weeks of the Senior Lyceum cancelled . . .

Second planning meeting for our yearly Cooperative Vacation Bible School cancelled . . .

Appointment for surgery for removal of cataract cancelled. . .

Tuesday weekly prayer group with four friends cancelled. . .

Tickets for two cancelled University Symphony Orchestra concerts were returned, requesting the Symphony keep the money…

My regular delivery of meals for the senior Center on Thursdays cancelled because of my age . . .

And then . . . Grocery stores offering limited shopping, but later offered home delivery which was most welcome . . . But not everything you ordered was available . . . but grocery sacks were filled, brought to your door by a masked driver who placed bags right inside screen door.

Prescriptions ran out, but Pole Mountain Pharmacy offered free delivery by a masked driver . . .

Cleaning supplies were ordered from Amazon . . .

My daughter and son-in-law arrived home from Lake Placid where they had watched the National Finals for the University of Wyoming Nordic Ski Team; their daughter was a competitor. So they all self-quarantined for 14 days. However, my daughter did come over to see me, but carefully offered no hugs, and sat across the room for me; she came every 3-4 days to help keep up my spirits.

But for me, there was probably going to be another quarantine on my birthday, April 8! It was to be a big celebration for my 90th! Because the 8th fell during Holy Week before Easter, the family had decided to schedule my celebration for the week-end of April 18-19. Would this virus lighten up in time? Son Tom and his wife Elizabeth would be coming from Indiana; doctor son Bill and his wife Kari would hopefully be able to come from Denver, grandchildren from various locations, our Nebraska cousin, my brother from Michigan, a niece from Washington. DC. Nieces and husbands from Colorado would join us. Of course, Mary Evelyn, my daughter and her husband Charlie DeWolf and their daughter Ella along with daughter-in-law Marilyn, were all here in Laramie. There would be local long-time friends and various other friends and kin to join the gathering being planned by my daughter.

Very soon . . . those plans were put aside for a “social distancing” 90th birthday celebration. Saturday there was to have been a big party for friends and family. Then the plan was to serve the fellowship time after worship at First Baptist Church on Sunday. Now . . . All this was abandoned. YES, there would still be April 8 on my calendar, and it would be my birthday, and I would turn 90! But it would be a unique celebration.

The night before my birthday (after the garbage barrels had been set out), my next-door neighbor and her friend used blue and pink colored chalk and drew flowers and butterflies plus HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARY all over the double driveway and the sidewalk leading to the front ramp. Neighbors from both sides had placed little windmills on the lawn, and they were spinning furiously in the Laramie breeze.

First was a knock on the front door. . . Two employees of the Eppson Senior Center were taping a large poster to the front door with fancy baubles and greetings. The two were wearing masks and then left a bag on the porch. They then sang “Happy Birthday” to me from the sidewalk.

Then a short walk to the mailbox to find several birthday cards. Soon after that, the doorbell announced the delivery of a lovely bouquet of flowers from my niece Meg and her husband. The masked delivery person placed the vase on the floor just inside the door and left. Later another bouquet was delivered from Edward D. Jones; the masked young lady came to ring the doorbell, then setting the bouquet about midway up the ramp; she stood out on the sidewalk to see for sure that I came to the door.

My daughter handed me a timeline for when each of the family members were signed up to contact me by ZOOM on my computer. That about took up two days to speak and even to interact with family members in Michigan, Washington State, Tennessee, Indiana, Maryland, Colorado, and Montreal, Canada. It was a great gift to see the whole family – four generations speaking and joking back and forth. . . With birthday greetings!

There were also phone calls from friends. This was MUCH different from the 1936 birthday in the backyard with big brother Jim eating birthday cupcakes together.

At five pm my daughter and I took two lawn chairs to the front lawn for a birthday parade. About twenty-five cars with friends (and an occasional pup) drove by, honking and tossing cards and signs. One couple added two more small windmills to the yard. The couple to the north walked out to their lawn and gave a “hands up” greeting. Daughter-in-law Marilyn decided to bring up the rear and then stayed for a short “distance” greeting. The lovely afternoon weather began to chill so we headed inside for the birthday “banquet” attended by daughter Mary Evelyn and her husband Charlie, and 90-heard-old me — without cupcakes!

The quarantine for COVID-19 was still very much in effect! It would NOT be over in six weeks like back in 1936. So after so many folks thought of me on my birthday, I began to try to think of ways to think about others. Shortly after my birthday, the granddaughter of a dear friend gave birth to twin boys; they would be moving in with her after two days in the hospital! Our church ladies had earlier spoken about a baby shower at church with gifts and fun and food. Of course, that was not to be. So, another friend and I decided the one gift that you are certain to need with two babies is diapers!

Out went E-mails and phone calls to our First Baptist ladies to mail a check to me, or drive by my house and put a donation in a plastic cookie can with a hole in the lid for a donation. Quickly we had over $300!! The next step was to find out what kind and size of diaper the new Mom was using. And the first order was made with delivery from Cheyenne promised within two days! GREAT . . . Except TEN days later, I received news that the order was canceled.

So . . . Back to the computer and this time I would contact Amazon who promised 10 day delivery. I was kept informed and learned of the day of delivery. The day before they were to be delivered, Amazon also sent word that they could also deliver her favorite brand within 24-hour delivery. So I ordered another batch. Large boxes almost filled the steps to the house -they all came the same day! The little boys are “diapered” for some time. The diaper fund has more money left to diaper those little boys for some time!

Another project I came up with came from my desk drawer where I found lots of postcards that we never mailed from various trips, especially Rome! So I began to mail postcards first to ladies at church who do not have E-mail so they often miss out on news from church. I wrote, ”Hi. I am NOT in Rome. . . But am thinking of you, etc.”. I also sent some to grandkids and great grandkids. Most people love to get mail – even an old card from a scene in Rome! Before long, I ran out of stamps! I soon found you could order postage online to be delivered to your mailbox. I began another round of postcards to friends and family, after receiving my roll of 35 cent stamps. I occasionally made a few phone calls.

For the past several months I have prepared an E-mail Monday Memo to our church family. Now that became more important to keep the church family notified of changed plans for worship and board meetings, access to building, how to give your offering, etc. We soon learned that Sunday worship would be on Zoom. I was privileged to deliver the sermon one Sunday from my computer desk! It was fun to “see” former church folks signing from out of town.

My daughter offered an opportunity for the two of us to go to our cabin for 8 days! So after the University faculty concluded their grades, she and I headed to Boulder Ridge to practice “social distancing” at our family cabin twenty-seven miles from town. On a Saturday, a couple, good friends, drove up for the day. We sat outside in the yard on lawn furniture 8 feet apart. They brought their own food; we ate ours! We had a great visit!

Over the Memorial Day Week-end, my niece and her husband drove in from Greeley, and my grand-daughter and her boyfriend from town. Once again, we sat in the yard this time with blankets over our knees because of the wind! It was invigorating to see other people even for a short visit.

Soon we will return to Laramie to self-isolate, but with recent memories of the view of Medicine Bow Peak at sunset from our picture window! And it is only ten months until my next birthday! Do you think the quarantine will be lifted by my 91st birthday??