Gems Among Us.

A couple of months ago, I thought I would expand my search for Pandemic Resilience stories to frontline workers at grocery stores.  A handful of them turned me down for one reason or another.  I expected that Jeannette would follow suit, but in her typical, outgoing way, she handed me a fashionable business card advertising her side hustle… a catering business.  Last week, I dialed the number on that card to arrange a phone interview.  Last Tuesday night, she sat down with me for an hour and a half.

je ne sais quoi
/ˌZHə nə sā ˈkwä/
a quality that cannot be described or named easily 

If you shop my neighborhood grocery store of eighteen years, you can’t help but notice the je ne sais quoi that radiates off of, “Jeanette,” a veteran checker.  She is one of those people you can’t size up in a hurry.  “Is she thirty-five, or is she fifty-five?”  (She is 61!).  Her signature style both displays her employer’s logo, and immediately subsumes it within the elegant, one-of-a-kind gestalt that is Jeannette Bledsoe.  Her updated 1950’s horn-rimmed glasses frame intelligent, curious eyes that are taking in so much more than produce and prices.   

The Interview

I think of myself as a friendly enough customer, but in retrospect, maybe not a very curious one!  Despite all those years going through her line, I am ashamed to say that my questions never probed deeper than her knowledge of recipes.  How long would it have taken to find out that she is a separated mother of two adult children:  a son, thirty-five, and a daughter, thirty-seven.  The geographic distance of her accomplished kids (Washington DC and New York City, respectively) will come into the story later.  In addition to raising her own children, and doting on her two biological grandchildren, she grandparents two children from her extended family as well. 

Challenges of Grocery Store Work in a Pandemic:  Frankenstein and Ahab

When I asked Jeannette an open-ended question about what it was like working on the front lines during the pandemic, she revealed an answer as nuanced as some of the food she serves to her catering customers.  She explained that Mary Shelly’s classic, Frankenstein, has been a source of insight throughout the course of her life as well as the pandemic.  She explained that the, “monster,” in the novel was no monster at all.  He was only looking for what all of us fundamentally crave, to be wanted and loved.  Those who beheld him were afraid of him.  Their fearful reactions caused him fear as well.  In Jeanette’s estimation of the story, it was this environment of fear that gave rise to something combustible and destructive.  Jeannette drew a parallel to her experience of the pandemic. 

As she told her story, I recalled early pandemic feelings when the new vocabulary of “coronavirus,” and “COVID” seemed to find their way into almost every conversation.   I remembered those pre-vaccinated times when the stab of chest-anxiety would accompany the constant news reports of overflowing morgues, and COVID units in cities like Milan and New York.  I wondered when and what was coming our way?  As Jeanette spoke, I remembered how empty grocery shelves seemed to exemplify all the fears in and around me.  I recalled feeling that “maybe this trip to the grocery store was a mistake!”  “Maybe a fatal mistake!”  I remembered washing and drying all the groceries before putting them away.  And then I remembered that the woman I was interviewing worked smack-dab in the heart of all that fear.  As I listened, I was to discover that proximity provided Jennette no immunity.  She felt every bit of the fear I felt.  But she had to carry it forty hours a week, because, “[she] needed that paycheck!”  And “People have got to eat!”   

She recounted, “During the pandemic, some of our customers felt frustrated and vulnerable, and so they took it out on the most vulnerable people in our store:  the checkers and front end workers.  They loaded it all up on us, not realizing that we were in the same position as [they were].”   When asked to wear a mask, some customers felt “afraid and angry because their rights were being taken away one at a time.  We [front end grocery store workers] felt afraid of the customers who were showing so much anger.”  She summarized concisely, “They were afraid of having their rights taken away.  We were afraid of making each other sick.”  Just like the dynamic in the novel, “this was a combustible combination.”  I asked for one story that illustrated this.    

“It was sometime around last May.  I hadn’t seen my kids or grandkids in over a year, I was all set to finally fly out and meet up with them.  This man walks into the store refusing to pull his mask up over his nose and mouth.  I had been missing my family for more than a year!  I had been following all the rules so that I could finally go and see them.  I got my two vaccines.  I had been wearing my mask.  All I could think of was that this man could keep me from getting to be with my family.  I walked up to him and said, “You know, I wouldn’t have to go through all of this if you would just wear your mask!  What is wrong with you?!”  He just kept walking and said something to his friend about me.  I caught up with him and said, “You better say that to my face!!” 

Jennette had never confronted a customer like that in the past.  “All I could see was that, here is the man who will stand between me and my children and grandchildren.”  Her daughter and son-in-law are both successful physicians who work with COVID patients and all year long had meticulously practiced protocols to stay safe, and to keep their children safe.  Jeannette wasn’t about to put her kids or grandkids’ health or careers at risk!  Fortunately, the customer’s friend said, “You better shut up and put your mask on!  She’s pretty mad!”  The customer complied.  She described other situations where employees endured coarse insults including racial epithets. 

In one dramatic instance, her manager requested that a customer follow the requisite mask mandate.  The customer flew into a rage, suddenly positioning his unmasked face inches from the manager’s while screaming at him.  The manager relented and allowed him to purchase his items mask-free.  “He had to give in.”  Jeanette observed.  “You don’t know if someone this mad will go home and get a gun and come back?”  The enraged customer’s wife informed Jennette that they would never shop in this store again.  Like something out of a Mary Shelly novel, the pandemic revealed a hidden piece of human nature.  “This man and his wife had been shopping in our store for many years.  I’ve never seen them since.”   Here Jeannette felt compelled to reference another piece of literature that informed her reflection on incidents like this one:  Herman Melville’s, Moby Dick.  “Captain Ahab was so obsessed with killing that whale.   That obsession left him so alone!  It’s sad.”

Resilience Resources

Meaningful Service

Like the physicians I interviewed who staffed COVID units, it was a sense of service to her customers that played a primary role in Jeanette’s resilience throughout the pandemic.  She recalled the people who were regulars at her store.  To “stay well, they had to eat well.”  It gave Jeanette a sense of purpose knowing that she was doing her part to make sure her customers and community could be fed. 

A Paycheck

Unlike the physicians whom I had interviewed about their COVID experience, Jeanette described her “paycheck” as a motivating force to step onto the frontlines when others were safely quarantining at home.  She recounted reading in the paper about all the people going on unemployment.  She had to have known that was an option for her.  Yet she stated that she didn’t want to do that.  Like so many workers who staffed busses, trains, utility plants, and more, the basic necessity of putting food on the table required contact with a potentially deadly virus on a daily basis.  Nevertheless, as a psychotherapist, I see in this decision born of necessity, an inchoate resilience strategy.  Besides diminishing finances, unemployment is often a vacuum that sucks away daily purpose, activity, and self-esteem.  Over the years, this resilient woman, not only raised two professional children of her own, but took in other relatives’ children to give them a leg up on life—all on a checker’s salary with the aid of a side job.

Mother Mode

She laughed when she recounted something her daughter has frequently told her, “You are always in mother mode!”   She then recounted a story.  She saw a familiar mom-daughter combination walking by her at her store.  “I asked the little girl, ‘How are you Sweetie?’  She took me off guard.  She said, ‘I’m scared!’  Even though she was wearing a mask, you could see that her mother’s mouth almost hit the floor!”  At this moment in the story, Jeanette’s voice slowed down, became softer, and cracked.  “I got down and said to her, ‘You know what?  We adults get that way too!  What you want to do is address those feelings!  Tonight you talk to your mom, and you’re going to feel better!  I promise.’  We always think kids are so resilient.  Well they’re not!  They need someone to talk with too!” 

Interpreting the Data

Here is where something essential about Jeanette came into focus for me.  It occurred that the indescribable je ne sais quoi about her goes so much deeper than youthful looks, or interesting wardrobe choices.  She never said it consciously, but it occurred to me that, what has been getting her through this pandemic is something that I’ll wager has been getting her through her whole life.  Whether it is in helping raise other relatives’ children, or mothering another mother’s child at her store…here is a woman who applies her formidable intelligence and energy toward the service of others…in the multiple contexts of her life.  Her daughter names it, “mothering.”  Could it also be described as applying one’s intelligence and energy toward the care of others?   

Even as she beheld the worst of humanity, it did not occur to her to dismiss them the way the townspeople dismissed Viktor Frankenstein’s Creature as a “monster,” or whatever fashionable colloquialism amounts to that word these days.  It was not so much a spirituality formed in a church so much as one born of deep reflection on the themes found in some pretty formidable Western literature (e.g. Moby Dick, Frankenstein).  A lifetime of reflection allowed Jeanette to soften her interpretation of those whose behavior was pretty monstrous.  At one point, her daughter said, “Mom, quit watching so much news [programming].  I’ll let you know anything you need to know about this disease, and its treatment.”  Jeanette said that following this advice substantially reduced her fear.     

At any given moment, you and I have a choice.  We can allow our intellect and imagination to ponder the worst in people and situations.  We can allow our media predilection’s to turn us into Twenty-first century Captain Ahabs on a single-minded quest to slay our versions of “The White Whale.”  Or we can disengage from Fox, or MSNBC or whatever fuels our single-minded missions and clouds our capacity to see, to love, and ultimately serve our neighbor the way that people like Jeanette do.    

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