“I Would Just Love to Put My Arms Around Everybody”

What it feels like to live through the coronavirus pandemic as an 84-year-old.

Gertrude Johnson Howard.
Gertrude Johnson Howard. Courtesy of Gertrude Johnson Howard

Two years ago, I talked to Gertrude Johnson Howard—who is now 84 years old and lives in Phoenix—for Slate’s “Interview With an Old Person” series. (It’s exactly what it sounds like.) Our conversation stuck with me because of Johnson Howard’s candor, vivid memories, and spirited optimism. In this moment of widespread uncertainty and fear, as older people are being told with particular urgency to stay indoors and isolated, I checked back in to see how she was processing everything. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christina Cauterucci: Gertrude! How are you doing these days?

Gertrude Johnson Howard: I’m doing great. I’m not stressed out at all. We just done got so crazy and got so … I don’t know what done happen to us. We got away from God. When I read my Bible, every time the people of God get too far away from him, he suffers things to happen. And then they repent and come back to him. I know I’m just probably one of those fanaticals, they might call me. But I was reading in my Bible, and I looked up the word plague. And I just went through different Scriptures that I found, and I believe that’s what [the coronavirus] is.

Have you ever been through anything like this, this kind of public health crisis, before?

Well, when I was born, they had a pandemic or whatever they call it, and it was called malaria. [Editor’s note: Malaria was once endemic throughout parts of the American South and began to decline in the 1930s.] It was transported by mosquitoes. I was born on a plantation in Alabama, and we had no windows with screens or anything like that. It was long before electricity. We didn’t know anything about electricity. The doctor had told my mother that I probably would die when I got malaria. I must have been between 2 and 3 years old.

They did what they call home remedies for me. Do you know what the fat off of beef is? It’s called tallow. If you make a beef roast then set it in the refrigerator, the next morning, you can see some white fat rolls in there. And they put quinine in that. And they greased me with it, and they wrapped me up in flannel cloth, and they heated a brick on each side and laid it close to me. And that caused me to sweat. They put some kind of leaf in there too. And my mother said I would just sweat, and they sweated that malaria out of me. I had pneumonia, too, at the same time. But now they have penicillin to help with pneumonia and stuff like that. You just think about all those epidemics I’ve been through since malaria! They had polio, they had so many things. So I’m not stressed out about this disease that done hit us.

How are you dealing with it? What’s changed for you?

We can’t go to our senior center. It’s closed. And I guess all the saloons around here are closed. This town is kind of shut down, but I stayed in here yesterday all day and kind of cleaned my house. I know my house was glad I couldn’t be out running around! So I mopped all the floors, and I spent a lot of time talking on the phone too, because people call me. They want to know how I’m doing because they know I’m in that age group that this thing is supposed to hit.

That’s great to hear. Who’s calling you?

Some is family, but most are friends. And every day I look over my list, and if there are people I haven’t been in touch with for a while, maybe I’ll call at least two or three of them a day and see how they’re doing and see if there’s anything that I can do.

I have a lot of friends because I have this letter writing ministry. It started when I was a young person in church. They gave me this job to send sick cards to people that was sick, and then as time went on, they gave me a job to visit people in their homes—they were called shut-ins, and they weren’t able to come to church at that time. I would go and talk to them and “bring the outside world to them,” I called it. Now they won’t let me into the nursing homes because of this virus. But I’m still writing to people.

How have you been feeling, in general, these past few days?

I had a dream last night that kind of bothered me. I was at the funeral of one of my cousins, and she passed away in—I think it was 2002. I went from Arizona back to Ohio for that funeral. And it just kind of bothered me this morning when I got up, that I had had that dream. But there ain’t nothing you can do about dreams. You just dream. So I got up and I said, “Well, I was in here all day yesterday, but I’m not staying around this house all day today.”

People don’t like when things like this happen, things they can’t do anything about. My mother would say they acting like a chicken with its head cut off. I’ve killed a lot of chickens in my lifetime. We used to kill a chicken and pull the head off, and you know, that chicken would hop around quite a bit and didn’t realize he didn’t have a head, he don’t realize he’s dead. Sometimes people look so lost like that, especially now, when the doctors say, “We don’t have a cure.” Nobody knows where [the coronavirus] comes from. They say it comes from China, but it had to come from some place before it got to China.

It came from bats.

Came from bats, huh? Have you ever been close to a bat?

Not really, no. Have you?

Yes, I have. I was raised up with bats. Being born on a plantation, I was very conscious of all kinds of birds and snakes and small lizards and rabbits and possums and things. And bats are a thing we were always taught to fear. It was like they was—I don’t want to say they were cursed, but it was almost like that. When they get close to you, they got a face that is scary. They really do.

When [news of the virus] first came out, I took my friend to the grocery store. And that was quite an experience. I never seen people—they was rushing like they was running from something and didn’t know what they was running from. And that really bothered me. Have you ever seen a dust storm?

I don’t think so.

Well, we used to have dust storms in Alabama. When you’re in a dust storm like that, that sand gets in your nose, your eyes, your ears. And the look on those people that was at the store kind of reminded me of people running from those dust storms that I had seen when I was a child. They looked bewildered. I would just love to put my arms around everybody and hug them and assure them that it’s going to be all right. That this will be over after a while. I kind of wanted to cry. I got teary-eyed because they looked so desperate, Christina. They were just coming out of there with all these big rolls of toilet paper.

Was your friend able to get what she needed?

Yeah, she was just going to get a few things, but she came out with 70-some-odd-dollars’ worth of stuff. She was kind of panicky, too. I think it was kind of good for me to be with her that day, because she lives alone like I do, but she don’t enjoy living alone like I do. I read, I write, and I talk on the phone. Then I’ll eat. I’ll go take me a nap. I know how to live alone. I didn’t always know how to do it, and I thought I would be most lonesome. But I know how to do it—and I got coloring books in there.

What’s the best thing you did before everything got shut down?

This year I was invited to go up to the city where my daughter teaches school and talk to the young kids about Black History Week. I really enjoyed the children, how they paid attention to what I said. Mostly I just told them the story of my life, where I was raised, and how good it is that they got nice schools to go to. My daughter’s kids, all them wrote me a note. I got it all rolled up here.

That’s so great.

Isn’t that great? My daughter said, “When you have a bad day, Momma, just open it up and read what the kids wrote.” I read everything that them 32 kids wrote for me. And not only that, sometimes I lay hands on it and pray for that roll. I ask the Lord to bless these kids and shield them. And about this virus—I’ve asked the Lord to give the doctors and whoever’s in charge an understanding of what to do.

On a happier note: I know it’s your 85th birthday in July. That’s a big one. What are your plans, if people are back out and about by then?

My kids are planning something. They told me all I have to do is get ready and come to wherever. I looked in my closet, and I’m wondering if I’ll buy myself a new suit.

What’s your advice for people in this moment?

We can love each other. They haven’t passed no laws saying you can’t love. So that’s the one thing I try to do. I try to care for people, because I’ve been hurt so bad in my lifetime, and love is what brought me through.

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