Please meet two of the warmest, steadiest, most fun and truly loving people in Oklahoma, Tom and Raylene Harrison. They are parents to one of our best friends Meredith, grandparents to my little garden buddy Maddie, and regulars at the annual Lazy W Talent Shows, among other events. They were kind enough last week to share their pandemic memories and insights with me, and I am so thankful. Enjoy!
Before the novel corona virus arrived in Oklahoma, Tom Harrison was “not at all” aware of it. His wife Raylene had caught a report about it on the CBS morning news but was not worried. They were busy about their lives, volunteering in the community, working in their small church, and loving their big, beautiful, multi-generational family. In early March, 2020, the Harrisons remember doing things like enjoying a Saint Patrick’s Day-themed Bunco party and attending a Master Gardeners’ board meeting in Oklahoma City. Their daughter Renee and her husband John had just celebrated their wedding anniversary. These would be the last normal feeling events in the Harrisons’ life that year.
Together with seven other devoted people, the Harrisons lead the First Christian Church of OKC, which is housed at the locally famous “egg church” on northwest 36th street and connected to the Jewel Box Theater. They boast a small congregation centered on serious, joyful love and unqualified acceptance. “We like quality over quantity,” Tom quipped cheerfully. And I believe him.
Their Sunday morning service on March 15, 2020, is when things began to seem different. The threat of the virus felt real, so they reluctantly announced that morning that it would be their last church gathering for a while. They quickly reorganized to accommodate the roughly 50 members with phone contact, mail outs, and online service. Tom and three of his colleagues continued working at the church office for a while, getting everything set up.
With church plans tucked in and underway, the Harrisons turned their attention to quarantine preparedness at home and to caring for Raylene’s then 93 year old mother (she turned 94 this recent January). At her adult daughters’ urging, Raylene began shopping for groceries exclusively online, disinfecting all surfaces, and avoiding public gatherings. As the limited science filtered in about covid-19, their biggest mission became clear: Keep Mom safe and healthy. She lives near them, in her own home, and is thankfully healthy and vibrant. They were determined to keep it that way.
I was entranced listening to Raylene share her own Mom’s memories of the polio scare when Raylene was a toddler. She reports that they faced “antivaxxers” then too, and that yes, even then, without the internet, the masses found ways to politicize public health. The social divide was very real. She herself had no vaccine hesitation, no fear then or now. “We’ll get through this, we’ll persevere,” she assured Raylene, who in turn assured me.
I was curious how pandemic affected their day to day life, how their eating habits changed, how they spent their free time, how they communicated. They indulged all my curiosities and then some.
As for their quarantine diet, Tom nodded slowly as he announced rather matter of factly and without a trace of regret that they have made “very little effort to be wise.” His dryness about it all actually made me laugh, whether it was meant to or not, ha! He said they enjoyed lots of mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits and gravy, and plenty of their favorite homemade desserts. Comfort food, though, not stress snacks, because there is a difference. Though Raylene did not herself join the sourdough craze, a friend of hers kept their house full of fresh baked bread, and in June they received a porch delivery of homemade cinnamon rolls. So, yes, they ate really well.
Tom and Raylene have always been avid restaurant goers and are movie buffs, favoring actual brick and mortar cinemas in normal times. This year they have missed eating at places like The Red Cup (on north Classen, a really nice little vegan coffee shop!) and an Italian spot on Paseo called Picasso’s. In fact, Picasso’s might be their first restaurant visit when everything feels safe again. They have only been to a movie theater twice this year: Once to see Tenet (Tom neither liked it nor got it) and once with their grandson to see Croods 2 (more on that later).
Thankfully, though once Tom was briefly exposed to the wife of a positive-testing congregation member, both of the Harrisons remained healthy and covid-free all year, as did Raylene’s Mom. During the incubation period for Tom’s possible infection, Raylene spent fourteen days at her Mom’s house and cared for her there. They couldn’t risk both of them being sick at once. She also stayed with her Mom for nine days during the blizzard.
Their physical health only suffered a little, with regard to stamina and very minor weight gain (same here). But gardening season always helps (yep). Raylene loves to stay active and predicts big improvements to her vitality this spring and summer. In addition to this, Tom was honest about his mental health, admitting that it went backwards for a time, wondering aloud if maybe he enjoyed being alone a little too much (again, me too!). “There is a sense of relief from obligations,” he said, “but that can lead to too much isolation.”
Both the Harrisons are civic minded and generous to a fault, so I have no doubt that when they are ready, their calendars will fill up again. But how much, and how fast? Raylene said gently, “We want to have some control” and that they will “enjoy doing what is not a burden.” (Gosh this is a great reminder for me.)
They absolutely managed to adapt, choosing to have fun and see all their new challenges as opportunities. Normally Tom is responsible for one sermon per month at their church. During shut downs and remote worship services, he employed all kinds of graphics, music, and other technological wonders to spice up his messages. He rarely showed his face but had lots of fun being creative and engaging members who might not normally feel comfortable with online church. He used old music recordings, too, and to date the community has not missed a single Sunday service. They may even continue some of their multimedia efforts after they return to traditional gatherings.
For such a tightly knit family, centered around Choctaw and Shawnee, how did the Harrison clan stay connected all year? Well, they just did their best. They worked to “meet them where they are” as Raylene described it, which is also their approach at church.
They missed each other dearly and especially missed out on connecting with the grandkids. But they made efforts to talk on the phone more, use social media, and be creative as the months wore on and the changes and challenges persisted.
In June, Tom and Raylene opened their gorgeous backyard for a masked, well distanced family gathering, sans food or drink. They all just needed to see each other. It was the only such gathering all year, and Raylene shared that she cried after everyone left.
Then in August, 2020, when Oklahoma was baking beneath the summer sun, indifferent to the pandemic, and everyone was exhausted from, well, everything, Raylene was inspired to try something new. Her brother Jerry was in hospice care for stage four cancer, and the pain of not being able to see him was enormous for everyone, especially for their matriarch, who had been safely quarantined all year. Raylene consulted with Tom and her sister to plan a trip to Branson. They announced the idea to Mom, who needed little convincing. The heartbreak of not being with Jerry was somewhat lessened by a deliberate choice to be together in a safe way, and in a new environment for just a few days. It was less a vacation than a family retreat, a few days of grieving and safe harbor, together. They felt “blessed to be together.” Jerry passed away on September 1st.
For Thanksgiving, everyone ate at their respective homes, then they hosted a family game night on Zoom. The next month their nine year old grandson chose to quarantine himself for two weeks in order to safely visit his grandparents for three days at Christmas. To make it special, the trio found the movie Croods 2 playing in OKC. They were the only people in the theater, and they had a blast!
Tom and Raylene have been married for 32 years. I was really excited about our Zoom conversation, eager to listen to their stories and glean how this bizarre time in history might have affected such a well established couple. First, a few observations from me: They never interrupted or over spoke each other. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, they glanced and smiled at each other almost constantly. They told the same stories, together in harmony, without exactly finishing each other’s sentences. I heard lots of sweet “yeps” and “vice-versas” from Tom and saw many slow, gentle nods from Raylene, both of them smiling.
I finally asked them directly how pandemic affected their marriage. I loved that they were both willing to explore that. They agreed that they are both good listeners by nature, which made an unusually quiet year seem extra quiet. But? They didn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. They seemed to enjoy the opportunity to talk more with just each other, to make even better connections. They agreed to feeling closer to each other now than they did one year ago, which they both found reassuring. (Note to young couples: Even after 32 years you can grow closer and discover new depth in your union. You can also still need these things more than you realize.)
Like Tom, Raylene confessed to liking the massive shed of obligations. They had been keeping pretty hectic schedules prior to shut downs, even deep into retirement, volunteering and staying active in the community. To fill their new wealth of free time, they did a handful of fun home improvement projects. They de-cluttered everywhere. They relocated their dining table and chairs to a more spacious room. They painted one half of the rooms in their house, added a custom wooden beam mantelpiece to their fireplace, and continued doting on Raylene’s extensive indoor garden, which miraculously survived our insane winter.
They nested! They had a little pandemic honeymoon, and they nested.
Also? How delightful to learn that these smart, community minded, deeply loving, spiritually alert people were not above some indulgent television watching during pandemic. The shows they remembered easily were The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit, and Cobra Kai. Lots of Netflix, but no bingey repeats, which is a detail that sets them apart.
Talking to Raylene, I felt like I benefitted from a secondhand conversation with her 94 year old mother, too. She has a warm steadiness about her, a pragmatic spirit which she has imparted to her entire family (her granddaughter Meredith is one of my best friends so I am an expert in this matter). She seems to understand that energy is something you can choose spend, so why waste it on things you cannot control? She (and, accordingly, Tom & Raylene) teaches an appreciation for quality of life. How beautiful that she also is enjoying longevity.
Today, the Harrison clan is healthy and almost fully vaccinated. Going forward, they expect to be more of aware of infectious diseases in general. They are open to wearing masks in some situations, too. No surprise to me that Tom and Raylene managed to unearth humor and love in this exceptional year. They left me with simple advice: “We’re all in this together. You don’t have to say everything you think. Just think about your audience, who you’re saying it to.”
There’s room for everyone at the table. Walk in love. And go ahead and have something with gravy.
“We’re all in this together.”