In her short story set in the year 2030, Daphne Chiang-Ratke imagines how we’ll explain what the pandemic was like to our grandchildren.
Rapunzel’s Kingdom, Corona
by Daphne Chiang-Ratke
Berlin, September 2030
This year, our seven-year-old grandson and his twin sister stayed with us for the last few weeks of their summer vacation. One afternoon our grandson, Lukas, and I were flipping through some photo albums while his Opa was entertaining his sister, Venezia, with puzzles. When Lukas spotted some photos that showed Oma and Opa wearing face masks, he wanted to know if we had been sick. I told him that, no, these were from 2020, during the corona pandemic. I explained that the corona virus caused a disease that had spread across the globe and that so many lives had been taken.
“Yes! You know. Rapunzel’s kingdom—Corona!” she said and her bottom lip stuck out as she frowned some more.
Oh! Now I understood. She was talking about the Disney movie Tangled. “Oh no, don’t worry, sweetie. Rapunzel didn’t do this,” I said and hugged her.
Lukas and Venezia were fascinated by the photos of chalk drawings on the streets, and they wanted to know who had drawn them. I told them that kids from the neighborhood made them, of course. I showed them that the drawings were in the streets, not just on the sidewalks. Back then, when people were told to stay home to save lives, there weren’t so many cars on the streets, and the kids suddenly had a different playground to explore: the empty streets. Then they wanted to know if all the kids from the neighborhood had made the chalk pictures together. I had to explain that we all had to maintain social distance, even kids.
And, of course, I had to explain what social distance meant, that it meant we all stayed at home with our own families. No visits to other families, grandparents, or friends. No visits with neighbors either. It was hard for them to hear that hugs and kisses were unwelcome and that not visiting parents and friends could be an act of love.
But they still wanted to know more about the kids who had been making the chalk drawings in the streets. I told them that kindergartens, schools, and playgrounds were closed during the pandemic. They looked amazed and maybe a little envious. They asked whether the kids had homework. So, I told them that the kids were homeschooled, which meant that either their parents taught them at home or teachers gave them online classes. And that meant they did have homework!
I thought for a moment about our upstairs neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. G., who were both elementary school teachers during the pandemic. Because he was almost retirement age and therefore in a high-risk group, the school had suspended him. Mrs. G. continued to teach from home using WhatsApp, Skype, and other apps. She told me that she’d seen a different side of the kids online, one she hadn’t seen in the classroom. They were polite and thoughtful, asking how she was and wishing her a good day. And the shy ones were not so shy behind the camera.
I told my grandchildren that we managed to have fun, too. When our downstairs neighbors’ daughter, Caresse, turned one year old, we sang happy birthday and toasted her from our balconies. Her parents had so wanted some kind of in-person party for their precious baby girl’s first birthday. For Opa’s birthday a few days later, we celebrated virtually, gathering with family members online after ordering delivery for him from his favorite restaurant.
The story of my husband’s birthday party reminded me of how we stayed in touch with friends and family and how we continued to live our lives during the lockdown. I zoomed with my family in Taiwan while I was at home, in the car, and on the boat. I danced online with the fun and sporty ladies of the American Women’s Club on many Sunday afternoons. One time, we were invited to a dance party with friends from around the world, so we dressed up, danced, and had fun. I even participated Sunday worship, sometimes with two or three different churches, while my husband watched the investment news in the same room. All of these things were virtual, through the Internet.
But now the kids were back to the face masks and wanted to know where we got them. I told them Aunt Celine had insisted on sending us these washable black-and-blue ones from Taiwan when she heard that Germany had become one of the countries where the numbers of infections were rapidly rising. Their Opa had also received some masks from his business contacts in China, free of charge.
I explained to Lukas and Venezia that, at first, we were not encouraged to wear the masks, and we didn’t feel comfortable putting them on until the situation was kind of critical. We felt like two aliens from outer space the first time we put them on, one beautiful sunny day on the crowded Wannsee waterfront. I finally decided to wear a mask when I went to supermarket, because I didn’t want to terrify the other shoppers with my horrible sneezing from allergies. That was before wearing a face mask in public spaces became the norm.
After a while, wearing face masks and maintaining social distance seemed more or less normal. Oh, sometimes it was not easy to stay at least 1.5 meters away from others. I told the kids about the day that three people suddenly entered the staircase of our building at the same time. I was at the foot of the stairs heading toward the front door, while Mrs. B. had just entered the front door and Mrs. G. was coming downstairs. How did we solve the problem? I walked down to the basement, and Mrs. G. went back upstairs and waited until Mrs. B. went into her apartment.
“Oma, did everyone do it like you did?” asked Lukas.
“Yes, more or less,” I said and closed the photo album.