“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Newburyport, MA” by Áine Greaney

There Is No Way Home, Ian Ruppenthal

Our Impossible Pandemic Places

It’s been six weeks since my salaried job got eliminated. Now, in these commute-free mornings, I go out to walk our local trails where, in the face of our COVID deaths and bereavements, I feel the need to witness all that keeps growing and blooming.

A lifelong walker, I used to save my longer treks for weekends or vacations, unless you count those furtive sorties around the office parking lot.  

Now I barely recognize that office-bound self. Now I regret all those lunch times and Saturday mornings when, my brain still bristling with project lists and deadlines, I walked without seeing. Or thinking. Or remembering. Or reminiscing about that afternoon fifteen years ago when my late mother declared that, more than anything else, she longed to leave her hospital bed to take one last walk outside. It was summer. She had cancer and I had flown from my home in Massachusetts to that inpatient hospital room in my native Ireland.

As bucket lists go, Mam’s was modest and uncharacteristically secular. And, it turned out, it was unattainable.

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Though we had our sweet moments, I often felt my mother’s disappointment in me. She was a devout and daily-practicing Catholic. The fourth of five kids, I was a bookish and moody teen who, despite my Irish convent education, rejected the religion that was so central to my mother’s being. So despite my good grades, despite being accepted to the college of her choice, I felt her disappointment. Then, post college, when I quit my Irish government job to emigrate to America, that maternal disappointment deepened.

Or am I wrong about this?

Whatever it is or was, for two-plus decades, I spent a small fortune on transatlantic phone calls that were full of vapid small talk and an immigrant show-and-tell (mine!) that neither mollified nor mattered.    

Then, about twenty years ago, and for no reason that I remember, Mam starting taking a daily walk. I heard that verve in her voice, and now, when we landed in one of our usual conversational cul-de-sacs, she launched what I secretly called our “walk talks.”

In my kitchen in Massachusetts, I heard when the snowdrops bloomed and the cuckoo called and when the new spring lambs were born and bleating. 

Meanwhile, the colder and icier my own winter weekend walks, the better Mam liked it.   

“Oooh,” she would croon into her white kitchen phone. “Don’t you get terrible extremes over there?” On summertime calls, she would shriek, “You were out in a pair of shorts! Did anybody see you?” 

Walking changed her. More, as we telephone-toured each other through our respective lives and landscapes, walking changed us.

Yesterday, on what used to be a working Thursday, I pulled on my hand-made face mask to hike our town’s rail trail–a blacktop path that runs from the town’s waterfront through an old, tightly packed neighborhood to the public road to our commuter train station. I passed our neighbors’ backyard fences, then walked into the chill shadow of the High Street underpass, then along a wooded embankment where I went off trail to touch and smell our native flowering trees.

Just before the trail head, the woodlands give way to a thicket of low bushes that, these mornings, are chirpy-loud with birdsong.  

I stood to watch all those finches and sparrows and warblers hopping and fussing through the undergrowth. Suddenly, the birds fluttered and soared skyward where one flock headed east and the other went west.

Standing there, I had an optical-illusion moment when the birds all seemed to link across the morning sky, when they cast a bridge between impossible places. 

–May 26, 2020

Áine Greaney

Postscript: I never thought that the US would surpass 300,000 COVID deaths. 


aineÁine Greaney is an Irish-born author who never wrote or published anything until she emigrated to America in 1986. Since then, her work has been published and broadcast in the U.S., Ireland, the U.K. and Canada. In addition to her five books, her essays, stories and articles have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, NPR/WBUR, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Times, Salon,  Litro, The Wisdom Daily and other outlets. Her most recent book, Green Card & Other Essays, was released in 2019.  Greaney’s awards and shortlists include a citation in Best American Essays. Also, “Sanctuary,” her essay about family bereavement, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Ian Ruppenthal is a printmaker and artist from Davidson, NC. He graduated with a degree in environmental studies and studio art from Oberlin College and has worked as an apprentice at Wingate Studio. His art is often influenced by historic work in scientific illustration, and modern field guides; as well as Ian’s lifelong love for birds and the natural world.