There is a massive pile of fabric on my dining room table. A kind of pale teal, with hugging panda bears and little cupids shooting arrows with hearts; cheesy and still somehow cute, the type you imagine would be turned into scrubs for nurses in children’s hospitals. This one won’t be. I am cutting it into pieces, 8×11”, trying to be as exact as possible, to make it easy for the women who will receive them and sew them into face masks. Twenty fabric rectangles to a Ziploc bag. The masks are intended for the nurses and doctors who are currently fighting COVID-19, designed to cover the N95 masks that are in desperately short supply. Our homemade covers are supposed to prolong the effectiveness of the mask underneath, pre-filtering potentially deadly particles and hopefully offering a bit of extra protection to those forced to wear them around the clock right now. I don’t know how effective they are, but hospitals are clamoring for them nonetheless.
I can’t sew. My mother was a talented seamstress — she wanted to be a fabric designer, but marriage and parenthood derailed that dream. Instead, she created outfits for her children. Born in 1941, she grew up in the bleakness of post-war Germany and remained frugal throughout her life, never throwing out anything. Her sewing room was filled with scraps of colorful fabric, dozens of spools of sewing thread, and several buckets with a myriad of buttons in all shapes and sizes, which proved irresistible to her grandchildren later in life. My mother was creative, loving, and generous, but she could also be critical and sarcastic. As a teen, I decided that sewing was far too much her domain to ever attempt it myself, and in quiet rebellion took up knitting instead. Now I wish I knew how to sew. Cutting fabric squares somehow feels less accomplished than actually turning these squares into masks, but I tell myself it’s something. Undoubtedly she would have made the most perfect masks, cranking them out in rapid succession. I probably wouldn’t have been able to cut the pieces fast enough for her, and I can just hear her laughter as I awkwardly handle the fabric.
The women in our small community who are behind this sewing effort are energetic and cheerful doers, and I am humbled by their vision. Seeing a need and stepping up to fill it, enlisting an army of more or less capable volunteers. So far, more than 1,000 masks have been created and distributed to area hospitals. In our affluent NYC suburb, people are often used to donate money toward a good cause, but in this case, money is not an option. There are no N95 masks to be bought, a harsh reality for people used to getting their way. Instead, we cut and sew. We buy takeout meals from local restaurants and send them to hospital workers, thereby doing good on either end. We try to make a difference in the face of overwhelming helplessness.
Most of us take the sheltering in place orders seriously. Stuck at home with or without children, dogs, spouses, jobs, we commiserate via social media. Posts are in turn funny, hopeful, informative, alarmist, supportive. Some host virtual cocktail or even dinner parties on Zoom or Skype, trying to preserve a sense of community if, by no stretch, normalcy. We share hilarious memes, music, or art. Depending on our political leanings, we praise or condemn the administration. We see the number of infections go up day by day, watch in horror as hospitals begin to use cooling trucks as makeshift morgues. We alert each other to stores that seem to sanitize their carts and shelves more than others, we recommend books, movies, podcasts. We assure one another that this, too, shall pass.
I am using my mother’s old sewing scissors. I don’t know how they came into my possession; they must have made it into one of the boxes I packed and shipped back here after her death. They are sharp, but I have already developed a blister on my thumb: I am left-handed, and my fingers don’t fit the shape of the handle. I have put a band aid on my thumb, and I continue to cut. I am thinking of the nurses and doctors who will be using these masks, exhausted and worried for their patients, their colleagues, themselves. Who am I to complain of a blister? So I cut. The daughter of dear friends of ours, fresh out of nursing school, now works in one of the COVID wards in the city. Her sister just had a baby, and they could only share their joy via Facetime because obviously, the danger of exposure is too great. I think of her beautiful face, and I cut. And with every 8×11” piece of teal panda-heart-arrow-print fabric, I say a little prayer. God, protect them. God, thank you for these brave men and women. God, be with us. God, help us all. And somehow I feel my mother praying alongside me.
By Kristin Jautz