This interview is one part of a series written by our 2020 CBF Summer Ministry Intern, Emmaline Rogers.
When I met Catherine Lewis in the front lobby of the church, one of the first things she mentioned to me was the goldfinch she’d seen that morning at the Douglass community garden where she volunteers. She and Dolores Briggs, the other volunteer gardener, spotted the bird in among their sunflowers.
Catherine volunteers at the garden twice a week. She and Dolores are the main gardeners and work with community outreach, often hosting other volunteers and working with students. Since the pandemic, the work of the garden “hasn’t changed a lot, except some of our traditions we had with the students had to change…” They used to do a cheer with the students every day, all of them standing in a circle to put their hands in the middle and shout something a student would come up with. “Working with the students is the part we love the best…” They don’t usually have too many student volunteers in the summer, so that aspect hasn’t changed much. Catherine and Dolores will wear masks when they’re around each other and the other occasional volunteers, but not while they’re separated and working in the garden. One slightly significant difference has been that Catherine has been meeting Dolores at the garden twice a week instead of their usual once a week. “She and I laughed about the old, old hymn ‘In the Garden,’” Catherine laughed, “and the chorus of ‘In the Garden,’ ‘and He walks with me, and He talks with me,’ and a lot of times when people say that it sounds like ‘Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me,’ so we’ll talk about, ‘looks like it’s just you, me, and Andy today.’”
Catherine started sewing reusable masks at the beginning of the pandemic. “My daughter-in-law…sent me a link to instructions at the Joann fabric website, and so I made a couple of them that way…” She had her husband Jim wear them and tell her how to make them better; one of his suggestions was to add a piece of flexible metal at the nose to better hold the mask against the face. “I had some plant ties, sort of heavy duty, it’s a wire that’s in a rubber sheath, so I started using those, and they’re waterproof so they’re washable too, so I think it’s kinda funny that I’m repurposing garden supplies for masks.” She’s made forty or fifty. “I made a bunch of masks that he took to the VA that he gave away…he said the print ones were the most popular, so I did more print ones…” She found a cloth pattern that looked like a honeycomb, so she made a few masks out of that and gave them to Thistle and Bee. “I like doing things with my hands. So I have enjoyed being able to make masks.”
She and Jim have also been thinking ahead to an eventual move into Trezevant Manor. “Home ownership is losing its appeal. That’s a new thing.” They’re not expecting to move until at least five years from now, but she’s already trying to downsize a little. “I keep trying to do some decluttering but I don’t think I’m getting that far with that…They say nobody who can read can clean out an attic.” Catherine once heard someone liken Trezevant to a cruise ship; “Those words have come back to me now when people have been stranded on cruise ships,” she laughed. Jim’s sister is “locked in” at her assisted living home. The facility hasn’t had any recorded cases of covid, but the pandemic has still altered Catherine’s perspective on her eventual move into a retirement community.
When the pandemic took her ability to attend to some of her obligations, Catherine realized she was rather glad. “And so it kind of makes you rethink some of your obligations and think, maybe I don’t need to be involved in these organizations. So I guess really mostly just more of a relaxed pace and a decrease in obligations has been good. Some things have seemed a lot less important.”
Catherine is involved with the Memphis Area Master Gardeners. “I’m on the committee that awards scholarships to four students, and it’s two thousand dollars each. These days that’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s a drop, it’s enough to matter, you know, it’s not a token amount. And the board of the Master Gardeners, the officers, have frozen that money for this year because they didn’t get to have their fundraiser, and so it was very frustrating and upsetting for me to tell four of our applicants, ‘we want to give you these scholarships, but we can’t get our hands on the money and we don’t know when we can’…I guess that’s the most stressful thing that’s happened to me because of covid, that really got under my skin. And it still is, because they don’t have their money.” In order to get a quorum to unfreeze the funds, 113 people would have to be in a room together, and the organization is unwilling to hold business meetings virtually. Since most of the members are high-risk, the organization has decided not to meet in person.
Visiting with family has become immensely more complicated since the pandemic. “Probably the biggest change was that my dad, who is in memory care, went on lockdown, and I have not seen him face to face now since March. I’ve seen him a couple times on FaceTime, but that just doesn’t work well.” Her father is completely deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other. Since Catherine can’t visit him, she can’t make sure his hearing aid is working properly. Communication with him has been difficult. Another tricky aspect has been different approaches to safety measures within Catherine’s family. “My sister mentioned earlier in the summer that late August she might like to come visit our dad, and that they would need to stay in our house. I know what her husband’s attitude is towards mask wearing. I wrote her back and said I’m not sure Trezevant, where my dad is, will be open, and I’m not sure my house will be open…It’s kinda bad to have to say that but, I told her ‘I hope you’re not put off by that,’ and I said ‘we’ll host you, but we might host you by paying for a hotel for you.’” She and Jim have another grandchild due in early January. They regularly FaceTime their two-year-old granddaughter. “In late August, the couple with the grandchild…they’ve rented an Airbnb near Chattanooga and asked us to come and meet them there. And we’d love to, but at the same time the granddaughter is still going to daycare, and they’re being just as careful as they can be, but will that be the week she has a covid and takes it and brings it to us? So we told them we would not rule it out. Jim went ahead and cancelled his clinic for that week, but it will be a last minute decision whether we go or not…So I’ll be glad when there’s a vaccine. I’ll feel a lot more comfortable then.”
Catherine spends most of her days trying to keep busy. “I goof off a lot more than I should,” she laughed. “I do like to do needlework, besides the mask sewing, I do cross stitch, and so, for number two son and his wife, I’m working on a very intricate cross stitch picture. Combine that with the TV time… I’ve done more gardening than usual…we have a dog, Abigail, a cocker spaniel, she and I hang out together. My dad used to always say that he was really good at puttering. I’ve done a lot of puttering…you’re still moving around, but at the end of the day you’re thinking, what did I do today?”
Catherine does not think this pandemic will be going away any time soon, and is preparing to spend the upcoming years wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. “I think it’s a sad necessity. Coming from a healthcare family, Dr. Fauci is our hero. I think that if we had been better about the precautions earlier, we would be in less trouble than we are now. Kinda hard to close the gate after the horse is out. And I also think it’s going to be a long haul. Even after a vaccine comes out, some vaccines are more effective than others. I’ll certainly be as close to the front of the line as I can be to get one, but, you know, it’s not always a panacaea. So I think that the precautions we’re having to take will be something that we’re going to have to settle in and get used to. I appreciate the fact that our church staff has been cautious.”
She is also trying to find new ways to connect with people, now that the original methods are six months old. “The Hochsteins have gotten some chickens, built a chicken coop in their backyard, and I found some fabric that had little chickens on it, so I made four masks out of this chicken fabric for their family and dropped it off then texted them and said there’s something on your porch for you. I told our Sunday School class leader maybe have a Secret Santa in the summer, Secret Summer Santa or something, and have people give each other little trinkets and things just to touch base…other ways to keep lines of communication open and all that.”
Catherine has also had to relearn how to cook meals, since she and Jim can no longer eat out. “One of the things I’ve kinda liked doing too is clearing out the pantry a little bit. And now it really has just things I actually use. I think fewer impulse purchases, so I’ve enjoyed trimming that down. Getting a little more realistic about what I’ll actually do and what I won’t do.” She loves cooking with vegetables from the Douglass garden. “There’s a pride and achievement when it’s something you’ve grown yourself.”
The garden has been Catherine’s aide to get through the pandemic. Not much has changed for her, but the biweekly time outdoors with Dolores has been a delight for her. “Probably the fellowship of the garden is the best part,” she told me. “Today after we had seen the goldfinch, I said ‘well that’s the second best thing to happen today, the first best thing was that [a third volunteer in addition to “Andy”] was able to be with us.”
“This year we planted a lot more flowers. Nobody can eat ‘em, but we’ve enjoyed them. And this morning Dolores picked a couple of bouquets, put them in Gatorade bottles after we’d finished drinking, and she mentioned that she knew a lady who was an elderly lady who was sick and she was going to take some to her, and I told her well, that’s a ministry from the garden as well. We’re not growing as much food, but food for the soul.”
Food for the soul is what the world needs in the middle of the pandemic; Catherine has been able to watch it grow in her garden and has offered it in the form of flowers and masks as a way to care for those who need a bit of comfort or spot of sunshine in their day.