You could always tell if someone had lived through the Great Depression by where they kept their money. If you were my great-grandparents’ age, you might have hid cash under a mattress, in a wall, or in a canister buried in the backyard. You knew what it meant to lose everything in a moment, so you kept it all close by. You might have memories of eating ketchup sandwiches and bean soup and yearning for the taste of something that satisfied the palate and belly.
I remember thinking about this on a gray day in November, 2020, eight months after I had ceased seeking the presence of others for fear of illness. As I watched my one year-old daughter peer out the window at the children playing across the street outside, I wondered:
What will we, too, cherish someday?
What will we clutch to our chests as we remember what it was to lose it all?
I left the question suspended in my mind as I sat in the loneliness and isolation that permeated that year. The longer time went on, the more I forgot what life had been. I didn’t want to answer the questions in those moments because forgetting during the pandemic was my coping mechanism.
You can’t grieve something you don’t remember having.
Forgetting allowed me to protect the child I had brought into the world eight months before the world closed. Before I had been able to have a welcoming ceremony for her at our church. Before she could learn how people congregate, celebrate, and generate joy.
The pandemic began at the same time her brain started developing the ability to read faces. When people would walk by our house, I would wave at them through the window to show her how humans interact with others. One day I caught her waving at a window while no one was outside.
She had learned to wave at windows.
We waited and waited. Years passed and I was grateful that she did not know what she was missing.
It has been a long winter.
This past January, I decided that we were going to start visiting the farmers market on Saturdays at FarmFreshRI. It would be good for us with all the gray and brown of the season. We would go out and buy vegetables. We would do things. It would be good for us. My daughter Lydia, now three and a half years old, could see people buying bread and selling fish and handing out flowers.
One of those Saturdays, my questions were answered.
It started at our feet.
A rhythm that skittered across the floor and enveloped us in sound. Upon entering the market, we were met with echoes of snare drum rolls and a booming bass drum. For a moment, I felt disoriented, taken aback by how unusual it was to hear a public celebration. My ears and mind struggled to recalibrate, to register what was inhabiting the space. What’s this? I felt myself ask. What is this sound?
The sound. The sound.
It came to me, the beating. The cadence. The clickety-clack and rat-ta-ta-tat. The steady rhythm that entered my bones and reverberated in my chest.The waves that permeated my cells and nudged me to awaken. The song that started my spring thaw.
Music. I thought to myself as people chattered and bustled past.
My heart stirred.
Yes…people do this! People gather together and sing and dance and celebrate the joy of being…alive!
I had forgotten. Somewhere in my determination to avoid grief in my lonely moments, in my efforts to protect my family, I had buried this memory. I had forgotten that people gather and have gathered for thousands of years to express, through rhythm, what it is to be human.
I stood on tip toe and stretched my neck to find the source of the song in the crowd. Just then, a small hand clutched mine.I looked down to where Lydia was peering up at me through her blonde curls.
“Mama?” she asked, curiosity radiating from her face, “What’s that?”
I bent down and wrapped both of my hands around hers. The moment swelled in my chest. I reached up and held her face in my hands.
“Baby,” I replied, “This is music!”
The drums pounded up ahead. I took her hand and led her forward. We marched to the beat, following the echo that came from where we could not see. I was remembering, I was remembering. As we came closer to the sound, she jumped and squealed.
I had forgotten, I wanted to say to her. I had forgotten to tell you. This is the world, baby! This is what we do! We gather together and make music and dance and sing and share joy! It is joyful to be alive!
We hurried down the hall until we reached the spectacle.There were blue lights and green lights and purple lights and flashing lights and top hats and a masked man spinning what looked like bowling pins in his hands and things that shimmered and swirled and twirled and a woman with iridescent wings and another with scarves. Lydia stood, mesmerized.
This. I wanted to say to her. This is community. I forgot to tell you, my child. This is the world, too.
Her eyes gleamed.
“Mama!” she shouted as she began to jump up and down. “The drums are in my tummy!” I took her hands and started to sway from side to side.
“Dance with me!” I exclaimed. She started to hop. It was the first time we danced in a public place.
The drummers and jugglers and artists continued down the hall and out into the parking lot. We followed, skipping and dancing to the sound.
Outside, they formed a circle in the sunlight, their shadows dancing on the pavement. The woman with iridescent wings flitted around as the woman with scarves lifted them over her head, letting the fabric billow in the wind like two banners. Lydia watched, marching and clapping, looking up at me with laughter.
The woman with wings wandered over to us.
“Would she like to dance in the middle?” she asked. I motioned to Lydia and repeated the question. Timidly, she let go of my hand and entered the circle. For a moment from the center, she looked around at the strangers who had welcomed her. The rolling snare, the echoing tom, the booming bass and clackety-clack. The woman with wings, the woman with scarves, the man twirling bowling pins. Strangers who took her in with the sound of drums and banners flapping high as if to say Welcome, baby. Welcome to the world.
This. I thought to myself as I watched my daughter dance in the sunlight. This is what I will cherish.
Lindsey Neves Baillargeron is a native Rhode Islander who strives to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. She teaches classes on writing and the expressive arts at the Office of Children, Youth, and Learning in Cumberland, and is the co-founder of Northern Rhode Island Forest School. nriforestschool.com