“Abre la puerta!” said Josefina Olivo, seeing her family line the sidewalk in front of her house on West 58th Street. Open the door.
“No abre la puerta,” her son gently cautioned. Don’t open the door.
It was March 20, Olivo’s 95th birthday. Five years ago her big family — she has five children, 19 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren — threw a big party for her at a fancy restaurant, with purple balloons, her favorite color.
Now in the time of coronavirus, the woman referred to as “our matriarch” by her family stood in a purple dress — one granddaughter calls her “Lil Petunia” — and was serenaded with music and signs. She waved.
Life has a habit of plucking away our joys even in the best of times. It was hard enough for Olivo, then in her late 80s, to stop making 20 lamb cakes every Easter — a tradition she borrowed from a Polish friend in the West Loop bindery where they worked. Pressed by her family — baking took three full days — she cut back to only 10 “los borreguitos,” or little lambs. Now she can’t even hug her grandchildren.
Still, everyone is free to spread joy, even during a plague. With all the worries about contamination, jobs, supplies, social distancing, it should be noted that people also take time to brighten the days of loved ones, or even complete strangers.
I was walking the dog Thursday when a woman I’d never met, also walking a dog, announced that at noon neighbors would gather to serenade Uldis Briedis on his 87th birthday.
I’d never met him, but that seemed a good plan.
Promptly at noon, two dozen neighbors emerged from their homes, blinking in the daylight of Catherine Street, then sang “Happy Birthday,” while Briedis, born in Latvia, stood leaning on a cane while his wife Ieva brushed away tears. They have lived here since 1969. When the neighbors applauded after singing, he gave a slight bow.
“I wish I could invite you in for a cognac,” he said.
Two groups are singled out for this kind of attention: the elderly, who are most at risk from COVID-19, and children like Tyler, whose 6th birthday was commemorated without the usual party but still celebrated with what has to be the fulfillment of every little boy’s dream — a visit by the fire department.
“Happy birthday, Tyler! Happy birthday!” firefighters called, holding a big sign with “6” on it. The Wauconda Fire District has been soliciting requests and fill about nine a day, the chief said.
Nor is a birthday necessary. Teachers are staging drive-by parades. “We can’t wait to see you!” Teachers in Hometown announced on a flier promoting their “teacher parade” through the neighborhoods around their school Tuesday at 1:30. (If like me, you’re unfamiliar, Hometown is a community of 4,300 just northeast of Oak Lawn; the adjacent Evergreen Cemetery is slightly bigger).
With playdates impossible, parents have been organizing a variety of scavenger hunt walks through their neighborhoods.
In Forest Park, after families on strolls started counting how many shamrocks they could find on St. Patrick’s Day, Jaymi Raad began a Facebook group, “Forest Park Neighborhood Window Walk,” where neighbors are invited to post in their windows: jokes on April 1, Easter Eggs on April 4.
“People appreciated getting out of the house and seeing friends and neighbors, from a safe distance,” Raad told the Forest Park Review. “I think there’s a real risk to our mental health being so isolated right now, and this idea seemed like a good way to combat the emotional isolation, while also maintaining the precautions needed for our physical safety.”
Spreading warmth and human companionship is as important as spreading hand sanitizer and lingers longer than any virus. Full disclosure compels me to reveal that, while learning details of Josefina Olivo’s life of hard work and bottomless affection — the depth and richness of which can only be hinted at here — I seem to have been adopted.
“We may make you an honorary member of the Olivos!” daughter Margaret Chavez wrote. “Once this is over and we get back to the new normal, we’ll invite you to come and meet our mom. And stay for dinner, of course!”
I told her I would like that very much. I almost added, “I can hardly wait,” but the truth is, I’m going to have to. We all are.