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Summer in Tennessee: A COVID-19 Story

| This is the 582nd story of Our Life Logs® |

One year ago, I never would have imagined sitting in a quiet log home, 30 miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee. But here I am, watching cardinals and blue jays flittering about under a gray spring sky. If I wake up one morning and find that it has all been a dream, I won’t be surprised, but I will sorely miss my summer in Tennessee.

The road leading up to our little Tennessee home.

On March 13th, 2020, the Trump administration declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency. I learned of the news from a cell phone notification while out with my family at a local Cracker Barrel Restaurant. Just a few days before, I had flown into Knoxville from my college apartment in Las Vegas to visit with my parents and older brother during spring break. I had been telling my parents all about Las Vegas and my final semester studies when I simply stopped mid-sentence to check the buzz on my phone.

Good grief, I thought. Has the virus really gotten so out of hand? What does a national emergency even mean? What is going to happen? Martial law?

My thoughts drifted about undisturbed for a little as the waiter talked to my parents and brother. Once my family was alone again, I broke the news to them. The news alert changed the nature of this simple holiday.

Now, I used to play video games and read science fiction literature when I was a child, so I’d had my fair share of post-apocalyptic daydreams. My parents, however, were in a whole other league.

My mother, an Asian immigrant, lived through a brief period of martial law as a child. Although she was far too young to remember all the details of the event, the psychological impact remained throughout her life. She is ever on the lookout for crises that might incite such a governmental response. My father, although American by birth, was aware of COVID-19 even in early January, and he carefully followed the progression of the pandemic. My news alert affirmed the fears both my parents had harbored for quite some time. In their opinion, it was time to go “off the grid.” I, for one, could not argue against the suggestion.

Thus began our end-of-the-world adventure.

My father’s job went completely remote as did my own undergraduate studies. The shutdowns meant a forced relocation from the urban lifestyle I was raised in to an unfamiliar rural setting due to campus closing. It was my final semester, and I had to spend it away from campus and my college friends. I was quite glum for much of March. It just so happened that my parents’ project was a worthy distraction.

Thoughts racing and adrenaline afire, my mom and dad set out that day to begin stockpiling and planning, unaware that our preparations would actually take weeks—months even. With shops, quite literally, raided on the weekend of the presidential announcement, we had trouble finding essentials. To be honest, I found the sight of barren shelves and disheveled aisles somewhat exciting— disturbing, but exciting. I felt like I had stepped into an apocalyptic movie. Still, we had no idea when restocking would happen either. Ultimately, my family had to give up trying the stores.

My mom spent days surfing the web, transfixed by her blue screen, so that she could purchase goods online. I found it funny that we were not driving around for resources like we’re in a Mad Max movie, but instead, scouring the internet. I suppose not everything about the pandemic was foreshadowed by Hollywood!

My parents and I eventually purchased all the foodstuff we needed by the end of April. Our inventory was carefully logged and stored away. I felt that we were in a good position, but my mom was not quite convinced. As I mentioned earlier, my mom comes from an unusual background. What I have so far failed to mention, however, is that she also grew up in a village raising animals and growing produce. When the pandemic hit, one of her first instincts was to begin farming again.

“You can take the girl from the village, but you can’t take the village out of the girl,” my brother and I joked, but Mom was dead serious.

I admit, I was not too keen on the farming idea. My parents had owned a few animals in the past —an alpaca, a cow, rabbits, and pheasants—when they still lived in Las Vegas. I ended up raising the animals because my parents were not in good health and my older brother was lazy. I was just out of college and wanted a clean, urban lifestyle without the chance of stepping in a cow pie. Of course, circumstances as they were, I was not in a good position to argue. If the world really was falling apart, farming was absolutely necessary.

After my father read a news article about meat production plants becoming contaminated with COVID-19, my mother was firmly resolved in her decision. She bought two steers, 10 hens, 20 rabbits, and a pig via Craigslist.

Lastly, we started our garden. We collected over a hundred slips of sweet potato, some dent corn, sweet peas, and several assorted plants of plums, peppers, eggplant, and okra. Our plan was to plow several square meters in my parents’ yard during the summer, to set up individual plots for each crop so could harvest in the fall.

“Are we done now?” I jokingly asked my mom and dad around May 18th, two days after my virtual graduation.

My parents looked at each other with expressions that read “Is it ever really enough?”

Eventually though, we’d gotten to a good point.

The hills of Tennessee.

On May 20th, my family closed our doors to the world. In-person conversations were reserved only for the neighbors. Our quarantine would persist until mid-September. Of course, we would not simply be waiting out the storm. We would be farming, tilling, planting, and much, much more. Summer 2020 was thus destined to be a very strenuous form of relaxation. No beach days and fun in the city!

I had a rather predictable routine. In the morning, I put the two boisterous calves out to pasture and made the rounds to the other animals so they could be fed and hydrated. Before noontime, I cleaned out refuse from the calves’ small shed and gathered the eggs of the “working ladies” (i.e., the hens). By the time afternoon came around, I would be exhausted, but this was also the time for my family’s other projects. Early on, we focused on building up and securing the enclosures of the animals. By the end of June, we dawned our baseball caps and long-sleeve shirts on to shield us from the hot sun and plowed the land for our (larger than expected) garden. When that was finished, we began construction on a small greenhouse. Luckily, we, completed it before September when we needed to protect the smaller crops from the frost.

Our little working ladies.

Of course, not all my hours under the humid southern sun were dedicated to work. With the time, I got to know the neighbors well and learned some odd details of the community. I discovered, for example, that a small family cemetery a few dozen yards from my parents’ own house was so ancient it actually contained several generations of the same household dating back to 1845. I also learned that the graveyard possessed the unmarked gravestones of past slaves. Apparently, in the hills of the old Confederacy, the grim days of antebellum America are not so far away.

The South, I discovered, has some quirky customs and preconceptions. Sweating in public is considered indecent even if you are jogging or working outdoors. People always use “sir” or “ma’am” when speaking to someone they think belongs to a higher social class. Education is a sign of class civility and most people get degrees just to be more respected in their communities. Everyone has a church and a pastor. Everyone must keep a trim yard and clean front porch lest they be considered unrespectable. As for matters of race, I discovered that most of the locals were not racist, just a little uncomfortable around strangers in general. Many Caucasians in eastern Tennessee tended to view our family’s tan skin as beautiful, much more attractive than pale skin.

I was pleasantly surprised to find how well my family and I got along with everyone in the neighborhood. Many neighbors started gardening after observing my family’s farming efforts every day. The locals seemed to grow accustomed to my family’s unusual habits like staying up all night, mowing the lawn only when absolutely necessary, or having a menagerie of pets.

Our little calf.

Days turned to weeks, then months, then an entire season. Soon, summer had passed and autumn, with her beautiful breezes and lovely colors, arrived at our doorstep. I was ecstatic to see the fields of thick sweet potato vines and the delicious roots below. The corn grew up wonderfully and my family broke off the first ears from the stalks in September. We harvested the eggplant, okra, and regular potatoes as well. After growing up in the desert southwest, I never imagined having so much success in gardening. I am proud to say that I truly have a green thumb after all!

Perhaps my readers in 2021 and the years thereafter will chuckle over this tale, tongue-in-cheek. The planning and exertion my family put into quarantining might seem a little extreme in retrospect, but at the time, we were taking reasonable precaution. The pandemic was claiming hundreds of lives across the country. News outlets were showing harrowing images of overworked medical staff and overbooked hospital wards. States like New York were using semi-trucks to dispose of the deceased. In a single night, I would read about mass-graves, supply shortages in major metropolitan areas, and widespread unemployment. Times were bad. To make the matter worse, the country was falling apart, fractured along lines of race, politics, and class. Americans were not coming together in the moment of crisis but growing more bitter towards one another. I had to give up my home in Las Vegas and abandon so many hopes I had for my post-grad life—a reality that many, many people my age faced. So, yes, while the world was crashing down around us, my family made the most of a bad situation and, in the process, had a holiday of it.

In the end though, I have no regrets. I will never forget my summer in Tennessee: the hard work and well-earned rewards; the friendly faces and unpleasant acquaintances. As the world tries to open up once more and return to a state of normalcy, I hope others can look back at 2020 with similar stories of happiness borne out of a season of uncertainty.

This is the story of Meg Brown

Meg grew up under the neon lights of Las Vegas, Nevada, never imagining that she’d be spending the first summer after graduating college in the hills of Tennessee. After the initial shock of COVID-19, however, her family retreated to farming, gardening, and building a self-sufficient, end-of-the-world lifestyle to propel them through the pandemic.

Meg earned her BA in History in 2020, graduating with summa cum laude honors. Her first published work was her senior thesis, an award-winning research article on abortion politics. In February 2021, she scored in the 99th percentile of LSAT. She is set to begin a JD program in Fall 2021. For the time being, Meg is ever the gypsy: traveling across states, living by her work as a writer and photographer.

Meg, 2021.

This story first touched our hearts on March 26, 2021.

Writer: Meg Brown | Editor: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker



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