In early February, 2020, Mari was planning a 50th birthday party for her husband Tony. Though well plugged into the news, they didn’t yet feel that the new flu-like virus was anything to worry about here in Oklahoma. “There had been other pandemics that happened and never quite hit me where I lived.” So they kept their plans, and a small group of loved ones gathered at their home. It was supposed to be the first in a long list of milestone celebrations that year: Tony’s 50th birthday, their two kids’ 18th and 16th birthdays, the anniversary of Tony and Mari’s first date (which is on Leap Day, so they only get to celebrate it every four years), and high school graduation and the start of college for their oldest. It was going to be an extraordinary season for this tight knit family. “2020 was such a year of milestones for us, and we cancelled a lot.”
Shortly after that party, Mari and Tony were enjoying a regular monthly date night with friends at Osteria, an Italian restaurant in Oklahoma City. She imagines she probably ordered a cheesy baked pasta dish. They were excited and getting geared up for a much anticipated Spring Break in California, a family trip to celebrate Spencer turning 18 and soon graduating high school.
But as news reports about covid-19 gained momentum, anxiety built nationwide. The tension crept closer and closer to home. Things began to feel very different, and Mari and Tony made the difficult decision to cancel their family’s trip. “Things were starting to ramp up and get serious; we were all wondering if some semblance of social distancing was enough. Soon after, it seemed like everything changed completely.” Just two days after deciding to stay home, the state of California entered lockdown. “It felt really real then.”
Being a military family accustomed to deployment and all kinds of emergency management protocols, Mari and Tony had no trouble slipping into gear when Oklahoma shut down. They are smart and responsive, and they fell easily into their new, necessary routines. Mari’s job transitioned immediately to full time remote work, which was perfectly conducive to Spencer and Marcus both tackling a brand new online high school schedule. The family dog, Trixie, seemed happy to have everyone home, but Mari said, “Sometimes I feel like she looks at me like what are you still doing here?”
Tony was the only one of the group who still had to physically be at work every day, so he was designated as the family shopper. He remembers his first pandemic shopping trip being overwhelming. “People were hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes, he was shocked,” Mari said. “We started buying a pack of toilet paper, Kleenex, paper towels, cleaning wipes, and hand soap every time the stores had a full stock. Not hoarding but keeping a little bit extra on hand.”
Their first covid masks were crafted out of flannel by a friend. “It felt like such a novelty!” Gradually they started ordering more masks online, and now they all have extensive collections.
Lockdown stress snacking included what also became one of many quarantine hobbies for Mom: Home baking! She threw herself into experimenting with cookies, cakes, bread, and tarts, with special mention for a lemon-olive oil tart. She also perfected her schnitzel and pork carnitas recipes. “Baking is good stress relief. Initially, wine was my go to stress reliever, but I quit drinking during this pandemic year, which was not planned but just kind of happened.”
Something special this busy Mom accomplished for herself during pandemic was to train independently for her first half marathon. Prior to shut downs, she had already publicly declared her intention to run “Half by Half,” meaning a 13.1 mile race by age 50. She wasn’t going to let a global pandemic stop her, so she and Tony trained that entire spring and summer. Then in the fall, when the virtual race dates rolled around (both the in person OKC Memorial and Tulsa’s Route 66 were cancelled), Mari successfully completed not one but two virtual half marathons. With her husband Tony’s support and motivation even when knee pain interrupted his own running, she met her goal of running each in under three hours. She said, “My goal became our goal. I just ran around my neighborhood and wherever I could reach by sidewalk.” Incredible! What a respectable accomplishment, to tackle this challenge for the first time and with no crowd support!
Speaking of accomplishments, I don’t know anyone who reads more books than Mari does. She considers it a good escape and touts the Book of the Month Club subscription as a wonderful investment. She has passed on her love of reading to their youngest, too, who haunts the library and has a passion for mycology, government, social issues, and much more.
When they weren’t finishing school work or baking, gardening, painting, or knitting and crocheting beautiful new creations, this passionate, multi-talented group used the long months of social isolation for binging great television. Together, these four happy roommates enjoyed Criminal Minds, vintage Cold Case Files, and every iteration of the Law and Order franchise. I should mention that these folks are true music lovers, and Mari touts the soundtrack for Cold Case Files as especially good. They balanced these dark shows with lighter fare like The Great British Baking Show, Modern Family, Schitt’s Creek, and, of course, Tiger King. This is Oklahoma, after all; Tiger King was almost required viewing during the spring of 2020.
One of their longstanding household traditions took on a more special meaning during pandemic: They keep an open jar on their kitchen counter into which anyone in the family, as well as visitors, can deposit handwritten notes commemorating special events and memories from throughout the year, all meant for emptying out and reading aloud on New Year’s Eve or Day. It’s a collective daily diary and gratitude journal of sorts, but for the whole family. Mari remembers writing something one day early in quarantine to memorialize the strange unfolding: “Remember back in spring when there was a pandemic? That was crazy!” She later laughed to think that she had once believed it would all be so brief.
Tony and Mari certainly never imagined that their kids’ high school finishes would be eclipsed by a global pandemic. But somehow they managed to discover some hidden treasures in the chaos and complication. When Marcus started his junior year of high school, he would spend almost another semester at home doing remote learning, and although a traditional classroom setting was needed and preferred for many reasons, it was only by spending so much extra time with their youngest that Mom and Dad became more keenly aware of some symptoms they called “neurodivergent.” They managed to arrange a medical screening and received a helpful autism diagnosis for their child. “I don’t think this is something that we would have discovered had we not had this time, and I’m very thankful for that.”
Then, Spencer was off to college, facing an especially complicated social distancing residential environment and many unknowns. But after all those months in quarantine, he left home with that wonderful cushion of intense quality time with his family. Without the previous year’s bizarre circumstances, his final months at home might have been much more hectic and much less memory-rich. “The family time was a blessing in that we were able to spend lots of quality time with our oldest before he went to college,” Mari said appreciatively.
As the world slowly reopened, Mari and Tony celebrated their twenty-ninth wedding anniversary with a short trip to a small casino resort in Durant, Oklahoma. This year they are looking forward to celebrating their thirtieth! She said of her 29-year marriage: “We’ve had lots of ups and downs and good and bad, though this was definitely a first. We make a good team and are usually able to give each other space when we need it. We’ve learned to talk instead of pop off when we’re feeling feelings, and that has made all the difference. Not that it wasn’t a challenge, but we tried to understand that we were both going through it, and neither of us is spared.”
For Thanksgiving 2021, this tight knit crew happily trekked to Washington DC, thankful for the freedom and means to travel again. Another of their shared passions is a reverence for the seat of government. Mari’s career also happens to be centered in D.C., so this trip was special on many levels, a meaningful compensation after so many delayed milestone celebrations.
Regarding politics, Mari is gentle and mostly guarded with her commentary, but she did divulge her belief that, “Government should calm, not craze, people.” She expressed sadness and anger about last January’s insurrection then relief when things calmed down. She gushed with affection for Amanda Gorman, admitting to having wept during the young woman’s poetic offering at the Presidential Inauguration. Mari said she began to feel calmer and happier around that time, and we talked about helpers and the constant presence of good people in the midst of social chaos.
Staying connected to loved ones during lockdown was made easier by the internet, a modern convenience for which they all are so grateful. Like many, they had to wait more than a year before visiting family in Wisconsin. In the mean time, everyone was thankful for protected health and, eventually, for the vaccine rollout.
No one in Mari’s household ever contracted the virus, though they have several friends and acquaintances that did. Some loved ones tested positive but were asymptomatic; others were so sick they were hospitalized for weeks. To emerge from this long, difficult year with their physical health is no small blessing. As of this writing, the entire family is fully vaccinated and deeply grateful for that. Mari said of the vaccine, “We weren’t the first in line, but I trust the process and think it’s important.” With every expression of gratitude for their health and their good fortune during pandemic, Mari also expressed compassion for others who were far less fortunate. She was reluctant to celebrate the beauty of their experience, cognizant of the suffering around her.
Looking back over their pandemic experience, it’s easy to see that while this sweet family didn’t have the year of extraordinary milestone celebrations they had planned, they certainly had an extraordinary year in other ways. They accepted the hand they were dealt and played it beautifully, with great love and responsiveness. They humbly gave thanks for their good luck through it all. They extracted from the ever shifting storm some truly meaningful personal connections, improved mental health, more fully developed hobbies and talents, and intimate family memories that will last a lifetime. They traveled intentionally when it made sense. They lived with authenticity and calm. Moreover, they nourished a very real sense of optimism about the world, about life. Mari said that they “spent more time focusing on the good rather than the bad. The good that happens when people pull together in community and support and love one another.”
Mari and I chatted in a soft, circular way about people and groups and human nature, about how we as a population have coped with covid-19 and all the fallout. Through it all, her perspective had that gracious upturned quality: “I’m shocked by how easily the world adapted.” She expressed genuine amazement. Rather than focus on the division or the difficulties, she has focused on how everyone pulled together and found ways to thrive. She has been dazzled by hard workers not seeking attention, celebrating, “good people doing good things just because they need to be done.”
I asked Mari to describe for me her spirituality, because while she never mentioned a particular church community, she emits such a sense of behind-the-scenes Zen, an inner sense of orderly peace, it made me curious. She is “technically Lutheran,” but had what she called a “self-reckoning with religion” in her mid-twenties. She now is actively working through her personal beliefs about heaven and hell, about God and organized religion and even reincarnation. This is far from a dismissal, though, and feels more like a wide-eyed exploration. She took Buddhist meditation classes and appreciates modern writers like Brene Brown and Glennon Doyle in varying amounts and for different reasons, and she affirms there is strength in vulnerability but feels like it should be more accessible to more people. Mari feels that we all are on “different paths to the same place, all just trying to get there.” And she wants to live in a way that “inspires better behavior, inspires others to be a good person.” Then she said, “At the cellular level we all need connection and love. Every person just wants love.”
Perhaps the most beautiful thing she said is something that just fell out of her lips so naturally: “There is nothing more holy to me than my kids.” So much of what Mari shared with me about her pandemic experience centered on what her two children were experiencing month to month, day to day, how they were growing, what she feared for their lives or celebrated about them. She is a fully engaged Mom who expects the best from her offspring and wonders how the world will treat them, pandemic or not. This is her religion, it seems, the crafting and feathering of a nest, a strong place from which Spencer and Marcus will soon be flying.
From the outside looking in, she and Tony are doing great. Mari has cultivated a sense of wonder and optimism, saying again and again in so many ways, “There are still things to be happy about!”
Wonder, optimism, and gratitude are the underpinnings to everything here. “I remember back at the beginning, seeing my kids with their eyes reflecting panic and despair at us, and working on trying to hear them out but also encourage them not to panic or get despondent. Now we say to them: Look at what you lived through. Look at what you can do. Look at what the world is doing to make the world a better place than it was when this all began. Because that’s the important thing, right? How we respond to difficult experiences.”
Looking forward? Mari asserted, gently, that she is in no hurry to reclaim the busyness of their life “before.” She craves deeper, if less frequent, connection with friends instead of the more common surface level contact. I love that. I also love her ability to kick off her shoes and curl up her sock feet and sit and talk. To sip hot tea and make prolonged eye contact. I love her ability to share a story and its core meaning, without stuttering or backtracking, without apologizing, just unwinding a golden thread with restful vulnerability. Sitting across from her on the afternoon that we finally spoke face to face, I drank in the slowness and fulfillment that we all were collectively seeking in those sourdough and puzzle-assembling months. She embodies both stillness and exploration, and it is quite beautiful.
As our conversation expanded, Mari added this final layer of humility: “We definitely struggled as much as anyone during this time; we fought and cried and yelled and got sick and dealt with messes and ice storm damage and had disappointments and avoided each other and dealt with hardships, but in the end, the things I want to focus on is not what we endured, but rather what we learned and how we grew. I will never deny the messy or difficult things we lived through, but I will focus on the fact that we lived through them and hopefully learned something.” Personally, I adore this perspective. Acknowledging the hard times is valuable, and making a deliberate choice about how you memorialize those hard times is even moreso.
Mari, thank you for sharing your pandemic memories and for sharing your heart. You make me feel exactly how you said of the world at large: You make me, “want to hope for the best.”