With normal life getting underway very gently here in New Jersey, I think of my Aunt Tonnie. Especially when I smell the rich aromas of autumn that rise from the earth in the evening.
In a time marked by poverty and war, three of my mother’s six sisters ended up in the monastery. I have a picture of a very young Tonnie, in a habit, symbolically marrying Jesus. Ever since then she has worn his wedding ring.
Aunt Tonnie would rather have had a man of flesh and blood, like my mother. A man she could make love to, have children with, and have fun with. It was not for her. On the other hand, she was allowed to leave the monastery for two weeks every autumn. Then she came to us.
My father and I were waiting for her at the station. We saw her waving through the window, then stepping off the train with her ridiculously large suitcase and kissing me lavishly. Once at home, she smiled and displayed all her presents for us on the kitchen table. A cornocupia of scarfs, sweaters, and socks. She had started knitting, crocheting and sewing months before.
She was a cascade of words. She stayed up until the sun came up, giggling and sipping from my mother’s bottle of vermouth. She pulled on my red Wellies and spent hours walking with me through the floodplains. We didn’t come back until we were all covered in mud. Aunt Tonnie was my favorite aunt. She was naughty and mischievous, just as maladjusted as I was then.
Since September, restaurants and shops are starting to reopen in Princeton. The university will remain mostly closed. But still, there is bustle in the streets and a familiar buzz is returning.
Now I can dare to go out again with friends. There is a lot to talk about. But it is not like before. I am not used to other people. I find them too cheerful or too quiet and have difficulty paying attention to conversations that go in all directions. The rest of the night I lie awake with a humming head.
I am no longer the same as I was before the pandemic. I can’t just pick up my old life, pretend there’s not a half-year gap. Social contact, I read, is one of the most complicated things for our brain. Research into people who have spent a long time in isolation shows that returning to society does not come naturally. Polar explorers, prisoners, long-term sick, hermits, they find it difficult to get used to society. Dealing with people requires a mental muscle, which you have to train, otherwise social atrophy will occur.
After all these years, I finally understand my Aunt Tonnie. Because of her life in the monastery, she was not used to interacting with people. How happy she must have felt when she, together with a girl in her crocheted poncho who could have been her daughter, skipped stones over the river.
Only now do I understand how much those two weeks a year meant to her. And how long those other fifty weeks must have been.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.