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Readers’ voices: Musings from the homefront

“What a strange time we are living in. Through?”

People say it, write it, think it, wrestle with it.

I am 82 and as a child lived through World War II in Hamburg, Germany. We went through terrible bombings; my father, though not Jewish, was incarcerated by the Nazis for almost a year, and I was separated from my family for nine months on a farm. Our maid had taken me there to keep me safe during the bombings, and since this area was east of Hamburg, my father, who had just been released in the spring of 1945, came to get me shortly before Russian troops arrived. 

Those events and this pandemic are two cataclysmic experiences that bookend the beginning and probably the final years of my life. If I catch the virus and there are not enough ventilators to go around, I will probably not get one. Well, I’ve lived a full life.

So yes, it’s new territory. 

What do I miss? Mundane and wonderful activities. Just going to the markets when I know there will be fewer people.  Participating in my three-times-a-week exercise class in the gym with my friends around me. Physically going to my three Five College Learning in Retirement seminars all around the Valley, often carpooling with friends.

Perks in our present situation? Jim, my husband of 59 years, tops the list. New little dog, Sophie, a border terrier, is right up there with him. We live in a residential neighborhood made up of a series of cul-de-sacs, so there is very little traffic, and we can talk to each other at more than a social distance. We’ve lived in Amherst long enough to know hidden trails to exercise both Sophie and ourselves, with little competition. And who can ignore the brilliant yellows of forsythia and daffodils this spring?

Neighbors have aided neighbors. I invited all comers to cut forsythia, and my neighbor Marcie reciprocated by sharing some Shasta daisy plants and teaching me how to hitch in to Zoom seminars.

Ah yes, Zoom. For eons, I had been hearing ads on NEPR about “videoconferencing” through Zoom, with the slogan of “Zoom: meet happy.” It meant nothing to me, except that the slogan irritated me — sloppy grammar.

Well, I have come down from my high horse and now appreciate what Zoom is doing in my life. I do my beloved virtual exercise class three times a week. Jim and I each do two Learning in Retirement (LIR) seminars; some were canceled, as they were not suited to a Zoom format. And he still participates in a Friday morning men’s group, which has been meeting at Grace Church for over 30 years. The really good part of this is that four members who had moved away, to Maine, North Carolina and the Cape, have been able to rejoin the group. They meet from 7-8:30 a.m., and Jim can enjoy his hot tea and buttered English muffins while meeting, and I do not eavesdrop!

Don Black, 90, another neighbor who has been in ill health lately, was able to rejoin his book group. It has six members, and they used to meet in each other’s homes on Tuesdays from 4 to 6 p.m.; now they Zoom and break out the wine at an appropriate time. “We do tend to get a bit off track after the third glass,” Don observed.

My favorite LIR seminar this spring has been one on “Women Heroes of WWII,” which traces extraordinary involvement of women in and out of the military: spies, code crackers, women aviators. Once the war was over, many women ceded jobs to returning men, but others remained in the workforce and paved the way for the next generations to aspire to higher education and jobs they had hardly ever held. In retrospect, that happened to me.

I entered Wellesley College in 1955, and my Spanish professor and mentor turned out to be one of the code crackers, something I never knew until I contacted the Wellesley archives about her and read materials about her wartime efforts. She pushed me to go to Stanford to get my Ph.D. (where she had gotten hers) and was instrumental in getting me hired at UMass, where we were colleagues until her retirement.

Day before yesterday I was on the phone with three other women friends: Nonie Martin, my best friend from Wellesley and also a Spanish Ph.D.; Patricia Warner, UMass colleague in costume history; and Petra Kipphoff von Huene, a childhood friend from my Hamburg past (Ph.D., University of Munich) and a leading art critic for Die Zeit. It turned out that every one of us was the first woman in our families to have progressed this far academically and professionally. 

So the LIR seminar led me to some unexpected and wonderful connections. I guess Zoom was the catalyst.

Nina M. Scott is a retired professor of Spanish from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she taught for 34 years. She and her husband, Jim, have lived in Amherst since 1968. Writing is one of her great joys.

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